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Review of  Style, Identity and Literacy


Reviewer: Carolina I Viera
Book Title: Style, Identity and Literacy
Book Author: Christopher Stroud Lionel Wee
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Sociolinguistics
Book Announcement: 23.3361

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Review:
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

SUMMARY

“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.

EVALUATION

“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.

REFERENCES

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”.

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