AUTHORS: Christopher Stroud, Lionel Wee TITLE: Style, Identity and Literacy SUBTITLE: English in Singapore SERIES TITLE: Critical Language and Literacy Studies PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters YEAR: 2011
Carolina I. Viera, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of California, Davis
“Style, Identity and Literacy”, as its title suggests, explores the literacy practices and linguistic identities of a group of adolescent students in the context of a complex multicultural and multilingual society: Singapore. The authors make use of interview data to investigate how language either reasserts linguistic citizenship or is used to adopt styles that conform to global market necessities. Personal narratives are examined under the light of discursive and sociologically oriented perspectives, such as Bourdieu’s (1991) concept of ‘linguistic market’. The authors state that the book aims “to explore the reflexive and critical linguistic judgments about language and literacy in the voices of our informants” (2). Furthermore, since informants are living in the context of late-modern society, Stroud and Wee examine, at great length, modernist assumptions of language and society and consider methodological strategies that best describe these types of language communities. Therefore, this book includes a discussion of a variety of interrelated topics: linguistic globalization; language and education; social and linguistic inequalities; language policy; identity performance; and language variation in a late-modern, changing world.
The book is divided into nine chapters and a preface by Alastair Pennycook, Brian Morgan and Ryuko Kubota.
Chapter 1, “Social Practices and Linguistic Markets”, starts with an interview excerpt. The quotation highlights, in the voice of the informant, the importance of English as a lingua franca and prestige variety: “You have to know [English] otherwise people will laugh at you” (1). It also pinpoints the language conflict that exists in Singapore, as Malay and Mandarin Chinese are officially associated with specific ethnic groups, although this association is arbitrary and does not reflect reality. By choosing to start with this particular quotation, the authors immerse the reader both in the methodology of their research (i.e. personal narrative analysis) and the linguistic practices and paradoxes of Singaporean society. The chapter explores the social consequences that different language choices have for Singaporeans and the role of social reproduction that institutions (e.g. educational or family-related) have in this conflictive linguistic situation.
Chapter 2, “Multilingualism in Late-Modern Singapore: a Portrait”, provides insight into the linguistic scenario of Singapore. It focuses on the contradictions between government policies and the actual daily language practices of Singaporeans, while addressing the question of why English is in the process of consolidation as the prestige language. The chapter develops the authors’ understanding of language issues in the context of late-modern societies. The former includes a detailed theoretical discussion and analysis of official discourses on multilingualism, ethnicity-based politics of language and language ideologies. Thus, Chapter 2 addresses “general and macro aspects of multilingualism” (23) that will be considered when looking at individual language practices in subsequent chapters.
Chapter 3, “Multilingualism in Late Modernity: Literacy as a Reflexive Performance of Identity”, completes the preliminary theoretical discussion. This chapter develops the notion of “reflexivity”, that is, the individual’s capacity to take control of his/her social identity through reflection and awareness. The authors aim to establish the connection between literacy practices and identity, reflexivity and style. They claim that, in consumerist contexts, literacy practices are best understood by analyzing the reflexive deliberations that language users produce when explaining the reasons for their language choices. Central to this chapter is the concept of a fluid and negotiated identity and the exploration of “performance” and “discursive constructions” that speakers elaborate when facing multiple linguistic markets. Additionally, Stroud and Lee draw on Bohman’s (1999) reformulations of Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” (i.e. a “set of dispositions inculcated in individuals by virtue of their socialization” (55) to affirm that critical reflexivity is fundamental when facing conflicting multilingual societies.
Chapter 4, “Some Data about our Data”, is a detailed description of the methodological steps taken in the research process. It includes a discussion of parameters, setting, data collection, transcription, underlying beliefs and narrative analysis. The chapter ends by defending a qualitative analysis of a non-random micro-corpus and states that this type of study should be complementary to large scale studies commonly used to inform language planning and language policies.
In Chapter 5, “Fandi and Ping: Literacy Practices and the Performance of Identities on Ambivalent Markets”, the authors discuss two individual case studies from their corpus. Their discussion highlights the role of family, interaction with peers, and state policies in the language choices of students named Fandi and Ping, who are Malay and Chinese, respectively. The ambivalence of linguistic communities and the different language conflicts that the students face on a daily basis are shown in the several interview excerpts included throughout the chapter. The adolescents’ literacy practices are approached “from the perspective of performance, reflexivity and ambivalence” (23). The authors conclude the chapter pointing out that both subjects, Ping and Fandi “struggle with both English and their mother tongue”, challenging common assumptions that “ the language a person is most proficient in is the mother tongue” (121).
Chapter 6, “Edwin, Wen and Yan: Styling Literacy Practices Inside and Outside the Classroom”, explores more case studies. The focus is now directed to classroom interactions and understanding literacy practices inside and outside of school. This chapter makes clear the importance of peer evaluation in adopting one language over the other or in literacy practices, and the subsequent implications this has for language pedagogy. Furthermore, after their data analysis, the authors claim that multilingual practices and “indexicality” present a major challenge to English Language Teaching (ELT) professionals. By “indexicality”, the authors refer to the well-known notion of indexical order by which languages have different values in a multilingual society. In the case of Singapore, the authors discuss how languages index social class, with English becoming the prestigious variety. Literacy practices are therefore affected by this referred order that assigns different societal values to the languages spoken in the community. For this reason, language professionals should inform their practices by rejecting broad generalizations and pay more attention to “the situated responses of specific individuals” (145). A relevant insight from this chapter is the way in which Edwin, Wen, Yan and their school peers “style” themselves regarding language identity in the context of the classroom. This shows that in the classroom setting there are multiple social identities, and therefore, linguistic identities: the learner, the attention-seeker, the bullies, etc. Thus, the focus on “style” informs us about how the informants shape their linguistic identities, literacy practices and language choices to accommodate different linguistic contexts. Contrary to official assumptions, the way they style their language does not solely depend on their ethnicity or home language, but on the micro-speech community to which they want to belong. The former evidences that language policies should take into account the diversity of options that speakers have rather than base language planning on empty categories like race or origin.
Chapter 7, “ Sha: A comparison”, is the last case discussed. Sha’s different circumstances make him stand out from the other students in the corpus and give the reader an opportunity to appreciate the diversity of the Singaporean context. Sha, an Indian student, exhibits a “set of literacy practices that is significantly different” (147) in that he has a strong preference for speaking English (over Malay or Punjabi). In contrast with the other students, Sha does not want to use his mother tongue and is extremely confident with English. He exemplifies how different individuals react in multilingual environments. His case study proves that the ethnographic method the authors chose for their research better informs us about multilingual societies’ diversity. Different individuals might contribute in different forms to the “bricolage” of these linguistic communities; however, this type of information might be obscured in large scale studies that aim for general patterns or major tendencies.
Chapter 8, “Pedagogy, Literacy and Identity”, and Chapter 9, “The Dynamics of Language Distribution in Late-Modern Multilingual Singaporean”, complete the analysis and offer an in-depth discussion of the topics addressed in the book. After the data analysis, the authors emphasize the connection between macro-social structures, economy and linguistic policies. Also, they address the contradiction between government-imposed language policies and what the adolescents actually do. More importantly, in light of their findings, the authors call for a “reexamination of prevalent assumptions about the nature of literacy” (168). In Chapter 8, they challenge two approaches to language education in multilingual societies: The Linguistic Human Rights and the Genre Approach. The Linguistic Human Rights is a paradigm that seeks to promote minority languages whereas the Genre Approach “aims to make power varieties more accessible” (170). Both approaches rely on hegemonic views of language communities where speakers have specific language identities. However, in the authors’ data, it is clear that speakers have fluid language identities, which are styled according to language markets with constantly evolving conventions. Therefore, the authors conclude their study with a call for revised language policies and the adaptation of institutions to the linguistic reality of the context shown in the students’ narratives. They finish this chapter proposing ways in which their research findings can inform specific changes in education and governmental language policies.
“Style, Identity and Literacy” represents an accomplished and well-written example of qualitative ethnographic methods applied to sociolinguistic research, which might be of interest to anyone teaching research methodologies or pursuing qualitative research. It also contributes to the understanding of “style” as a significant factor in literacy practices and linguistic identity. The authors suggest that “literacy practices can be treated as style” (76) and that this is central to learners’ linguistic choices. The latter is one of the most important contributions this book presents in that it proposes style as a “conceptual framework that integrates both adolescent activities and attitudes… permitting insights on how identity impacts language” (67). Additionally, the study of style allows a link between literacy and sociolinguistic theorizing. Indeed, different from other approaches that understand style as an individual choice, the authors portray societal forces that are at play in language styling.
Concerning research methodologies, it is clear that using the narrative voice of informants (Chapters 5 through 7) proved to be a successful strategy to depict a multifaceted linguistic community. Concomitantly, interview narratives are at the heart of this book, revealing that governmental views of the language in Singapore are ill-informed. The excerpts are carefully chosen to show how the informants negotiate their linguistic identity when confronted with the many linguistic conflicts present in Singaporean society. Most importantly, they depict the fluid nature of linguistic identity, debunking traditional views that portray speakers with immutable and hegemonic language practices.
Chapters 5 to 7 are enjoyable to read, as they directly reflect the adolescents’ lives and also confirm the scientific validity of a micro-corpora analysis. For instance, the finding of identity-based anxiety and its connection with the literacy practices of the adolescents interviewed might have been neglected in a larger corpus or in quantitative methodologies. Likewise, the different ways in which individuals resolve their acceptance in diverse linguistic markets could not be easily captured using macro-corpus data and large-scale methods of analysis. Thus, in the debate of qualitative versus quantitative research, this study proves that a focus on more qualitative aspects of language yields interesting and applicable results. The former is obvious if we consider the closing remarks included in every chapter that contain pedagogical implications, language planning suggestions and other different ways in which the theoretical findings could be grounded. Because of this, this book greatly contributes to the emerging trend of qualitative studies bettering our understanding of multilingual societies.
Lastly, in addition to the wealth of interview data, the book also integrates a profuse literature review. Therefore, it constitutes an excellent starting point for students or novice researchers in the area of language and identity, language planning, linguistic performance, and style. As an emerging topic in the sociolinguistic arena, style constitutes a promising avenue toward understanding individual language variation. Furthermore, the topics discussed throughout the book could be extrapolated to any multilingual society and the pedagogical issues raised could be of interest to educators working in the field of bilingualism or foreign language teaching. Readers will surely be challenged to revisit their thoughts on language and question their assumptions regarding society and language.
Bohman, J. 1999. Practical reasons and cultural constraint: Agency in Bourdieu’s theory of practice. In R. Shusterman (ed). Bourdieu: A Critical Reader (pp. 129-152). Oxford: Blackwell.
Bourdieu, P. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Carolina I. Viera is an A.B.D student in the Spanish and Portuguese
Department at the University of California-Davis, USA. Her research
interests include Sociolinguistics, Discourse Analysis, language and
identity, language policies and Applied Linguistics. She is particularly
interested in the interaction of individuals in multilingual communities
and the emergence of linguistic community agreements regarding language
use. She is currently working on her dissertation, “Discourse Analysis of
Oral Academic Spanish in the USA”.