LINGUIST List 14.176

Sat Jan 18 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics: Piller (2002)

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  • Holly Cashman, Piller (2002), Bilingual Couples Talk

    Message 1: Piller (2002), Bilingual Couples Talk

    Date: Fri, 17 Jan 2003 14:17:00 +0000
    From: Holly Cashman <>
    Subject: Piller (2002), Bilingual Couples Talk

    Piller, Ingrid (2002) Bilingual Couples Talk: The Discursive Construction of Hybridity. Benjamins, xii+315pp, hardback ISBN 1-58811-287-X, $68.00, Studies in Bilingualism 25.

    Book Announcement on Linguist:

    Holly R. Cashman, Arizona State University


    The monograph explores the language practices of 36 cross-cultural, German/English bilingual couples from a sociolinguistic and discourse analytic perspective. The goal of the author is to shed light on how bilingual, cross-cultural couples draw on their linguistic resources and ideologies of language to perform individual and joint couple identities, and to plan the linguistic future of their children. The book is divided into two main sections: chapters 1-4 lay the groundwork for the analysis, describing data collection and participants; chapters 5-10 present and discuss the findings.

    In Chapter 1, the author introduces the topic under consideration and defines key concepts such as identity (which she treats as locally constructed, something that speakers do, rather than something that speakers are, following West & Fenstermaker 1995, and West & Zimmerman 1987 among others) and ideology (which she uses in the plural as a synonym of discourses to refer to ''any belief that mediates the linguistic practices of the participants'' p. 15).

    In Chapter 2, the author reviews the literature on linguistic intermarriage as it relates to language maintenance and shift.

    In Chapter 3, the corpus is described in detail, as the author attempts in this work to avoid the anecdotalism which has characterized much of the research on couples talk. The author's corpus comprises 18 hours and 44 minutes of taped dialogue and monologue (responses to a 'discussion paper' composed of questions written by the research) from 36 bilingual couples whose participation was solicited through newsletters and listserves addressed to bilinguals in Germany and throughout Europe. Supplementary data includes questionnaires with demographic information, letters from participants, and postings on a listserve for bilingual families which the author monitored for one year. The author's understanding of the ideologies of bilingualism, bilingual parenting and linguistic intermarriage were informed by popular publications such as newspapers and newsmagazines addressed to the general public, as well as newsletters and handbooks addressed to bilingual parents.

    In Chapter 4, each couple is described with the ''intention to provide a sense of the 'whole people' who participated in the research'' (p. 59). The brief sketch, including information culled from the conversations and questionnaires, describes participants' ages, nationalies, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, country of residence (past, present and, in some cases, future), employment, reported language practices, actual language practices observed on tape, length of the relationship, existence and ages of children, and how they became involved in the study (contact researcher or contacted by researcher). The chapter is a useful reference, as is the couples index included after the references.

    In Chapter 5, the author describes the language background of participants, and how ideologies of language relate to participants' first language (L1) claiming/ownership and evaluation of their second language (L2) success/proficiency. She finds that while 2/3 of participants regard themselves as successful L2 learners and take a positive view of their L2 proficiency, significant facework was involved in the reporting of proficiency and lack of same in participants' L2. Additionally, she finds that 1/2 of her participants came from a language background that could be considered mixed or hybrid, and that this complexity led to a blurring of particpants' notions of L1/L2 and conflicting reports of L1s in conversation and on questionnaires.

    In Chapter 6, the author reports on participants' language choice, especially within the relationship domain. She found that choice of the majority language (reported by 7 of 24 couples living in Germany) was considered a default or natural choice not worthy of discussion or explanation by participants, while couples' choice of the minority language tended to trigger an explanation, which tended to relate to either habit or compensation for the partner living away from his/her home country. The author also found that the 11 (of 36) couples who described their language choice as mixed nevertheless internalized negative evaluations of mixing which led them to justify their practice in a variety of ways. In this chapter the author also explores language choice for the couples' disputes and language choice as a source of conflict, as well as language choice outside the couple domain.

    In Chapters 7 & 8, the author examines couples' joint identity. In the former, the author uses a discourse analytic approach to explore how couples position themselves vis-a-vis the discourse of intermarriage as a problem through the construction of similarity and the deconstruction of difference. In the latter, the author relies on a conversation analytic approach to uncover how couples perform cross-cultural couplehood.

    In Chapter 9, the author discusses the couples' ''private language planning'', or their plans and strategies for raising their children bilingually. She finds that couples expressed a strong commitment to raising their children bilingually, and that they drew on popularized notions of childhood bilingualism research to inform their practices. She also finds that the couples' negative evaluation of language mixing contributed to their very high expectations for their children's proficiency (what Heller 2000 called ''double monolingualism'') and often led to a sense of failure.

    Finally, in Chapter 10, the various elements of the author's argument come together as she relates her findings based on the corpus of German/English bilingual couples to broader concepts of hybridity, language desire and language status. She ends the monograph by arguing for a polyphonic sociolinguistics that ''accepts the very complexity of multiple and hybrid social identities and intersecting discourses as a central characteristic of its subject matter, including an approach that goes beyond description to include critique'' (p. 265).


    The book is well-written and accessible to a wide range of audiences. It is an important contribution to the study of bilingualism and of couples talk specifically, but also, more generally, to the study of second language acquisition and language and identity. In this book, the author manages to design a viable methodology without essentializing the complexity of the sociolinguistic situation in which the couples live. One important way the author achieves this is through the inclusion of the voices of the participants themselves, and another is through use of an eclectic mix of data collection procedures and approaches to data analysis.� However, one type of data not used by the researcher, spontaneous conversation, would have enhanced the study, especially the discussion of performing a joint couple identity. Although the author takes a conversation analytic approach to analyzing the couples' taped dialogues (responses to 'discussion paper' or list of questions provided by the author) in chapter 8, no analysis of spontaneous conversation between the couples was included. While the author explains the difficulty of collecting this data, it would have been a worthwhile addition.

    Finally, the diversity of the participant couples is an asset to the book; participants represent a diversity of ages and life stages, from students to retirees, and a the length of participants' relationships range from just a few years to over forty. The study also includes one same-sex couple. However, a greater exploration of that diversity would have enhanced the book.


    Holly R. Cashman is an assistant professor of Spanish linguistics in the Department of Languages and Literatures at Arizona State University. Focusing on Spanish in the Southwestern United States, she is interested in code-switching in conversation, language maintenance and shift, media language, bilingual education, and minority language rights. She is currently researching bilingual language practices in two second grade classrooms in a central Phoenix dual language immersion elementary school.