LINGUIST List 23.3361

Thu Aug 09 2012

Review: Applied Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Stroud & Wee (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 09-Aug-2012
From: Carolina Viera <>
Subject: Style, Identity and Literacy
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at
AUTHORS: Christopher Stroud, Lionel WeeTITLE: Style, Identity and LiteracySUBTITLE: English in SingaporeSERIES TITLE: Critical Language and Literacy StudiesPUBLISHER: Multilingual MattersYEAR: 2011

Carolina I. Viera, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University ofCalifornia, Davis


“Style, Identity and Literacy”, as its title suggests, explores the literacypractices and linguistic identities of a group of adolescent students in thecontext of a complex multicultural and multilingual society: Singapore. Theauthors make use of interview data to investigate how language either reassertslinguistic citizenship or is used to adopt styles that conform to global marketnecessities. Personal narratives are examined under the light of discursive andsociologically oriented perspectives, such as Bourdieu’s (1991) concept of‘linguistic market’. The authors state that the book aims “to explore thereflexive and critical linguistic judgments about language and literacy in thevoices of our informants” (2). Furthermore, since informants are living in thecontext of late-modern society, Stroud and Wee examine, at great length,modernist assumptions of language and society and consider methodologicalstrategies that best describe these types of language communities. Therefore,this book includes a discussion of a variety of interrelated topics: linguisticglobalization; 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 interviewexcerpt. The quotation highlights, in the voice of the informant, the importanceof 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 conflictthat exists in Singapore, as Malay and Mandarin Chinese are officiallyassociated with specific ethnic groups, although this association is arbitraryand does not reflect reality. By choosing to start with this particularquotation, the authors immerse the reader both in the methodology of theirresearch (i.e. personal narrative analysis) and the linguistic practices andparadoxes of Singaporean society. The chapter explores the social consequencesthat different language choices have for Singaporeans and the role of socialreproduction that institutions (e.g. educational or family-related) have in thisconflictive linguistic situation.

Chapter 2, “Multilingualism in Late-Modern Singapore: a Portrait”, providesinsight into the linguistic scenario of Singapore. It focuses on thecontradictions between government policies and the actual daily languagepractices of Singaporeans, while addressing the question of why English is inthe process of consolidation as the prestige language. The chapter develops theauthors’ understanding of language issues in the context of late-modernsocieties. The former includes a detailed theoretical discussion and analysis ofofficial discourses on multilingualism, ethnicity-based politics of language andlanguage ideologies. Thus, Chapter 2 addresses “general and macro aspects ofmultilingualism” (23) that will be considered when looking at individuallanguage practices in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 3, “Multilingualism in Late Modernity: Literacy as a ReflexivePerformance of Identity”, completes the preliminary theoretical discussion. Thischapter develops the notion of “reflexivity”, that is, the individual’s capacityto take control of his/her social identity through reflection and awareness. Theauthors aim to establish the connection between literacy practices and identity,reflexivity and style. They claim that, in consumerist contexts, literacypractices are best understood by analyzing the reflexive deliberations thatlanguage users produce when explaining the reasons for their language choices.Central to this chapter is the concept of a fluid and negotiated identity andthe exploration of “performance” and “discursive constructions” that speakerselaborate when facing multiple linguistic markets. Additionally, Stroud and Leedraw on Bohman’s (1999) reformulations of Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” (i.e.a “set of dispositions inculcated in individuals by virtue of theirsocialization” (55) to affirm that critical reflexivity is fundamental whenfacing conflicting multilingual societies.

Chapter 4, “Some Data about our Data”, is a detailed description of themethodological steps taken in the research process. It includes a discussion ofparameters, setting, data collection, transcription, underlying beliefs andnarrative analysis. The chapter ends by defending a qualitative analysis of anon-random micro-corpus and states that this type of study should becomplementary to large scale studies commonly used to inform language planningand language policies.

In Chapter 5, “Fandi and Ping: Literacy Practices and the Performance ofIdentities on Ambivalent Markets”, the authors discuss two individual casestudies from their corpus. Their discussion highlights the role of family,interaction with peers, and state policies in the language choices of studentsnamed Fandi and Ping, who are Malay and Chinese, respectively. The ambivalenceof linguistic communities and the different language conflicts that the studentsface on a daily basis are shown in the several interview excerpts includedthroughout the chapter. The adolescents’ literacy practices are approached “fromthe perspective of performance, reflexivity and ambivalence” (23). The authorsconclude the chapter pointing out that both subjects, Ping and Fandi “strugglewith 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 Outsidethe Classroom”, explores more case studies. The focus is now directed toclassroom interactions and understanding literacy practices inside and outsideof school. This chapter makes clear the importance of peer evaluation inadopting one language over the other or in literacy practices, and thesubsequent implications this has for language pedagogy. Furthermore, after theirdata 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 bywhich languages have different values in a multilingual society. In the case ofSingapore, the authors discuss how languages index social class, with Englishbecoming the prestigious variety. Literacy practices are therefore affected bythis referred order that assigns different societal values to the languagesspoken in the community. For this reason, language professionals should informtheir practices by rejecting broad generalizations and pay more attention to“the situated responses of specific individuals” (145). A relevant insight fromthis chapter is the way in which Edwin, Wen, Yan and their school peers “style”themselves regarding language identity in the context of the classroom. Thisshows that in the classroom setting there are multiple social identities, andtherefore, linguistic identities: the learner, the attention-seeker, thebullies, etc. Thus, the focus on “style” informs us about how the informantsshape their linguistic identities, literacy practices and language choices toaccommodate different linguistic contexts. Contrary to official assumptions, theway they style their language does not solely depend on their ethnicity or homelanguage, but on the micro-speech community to which they want to belong. Theformer evidences that language policies should take into account the diversityof options that speakers have rather than base language planning on emptycategories like race or origin.

Chapter 7, “ Sha: A comparison”, is the last case discussed. Sha’s differentcircumstances make him stand out from the other students in the corpus and givethe reader an opportunity to appreciate the diversity of the Singaporeancontext. Sha, an Indian student, exhibits a “set of literacy practices that issignificantly different” (147) in that he has a strong preference for speakingEnglish (over Malay or Punjabi). In contrast with the other students, Sha doesnot want to use his mother tongue and is extremely confident with English. Heexemplifies how different individuals react in multilingual environments. Hiscase study proves that the ethnographic method the authors chose for theirresearch better informs us about multilingual societies’ diversity. Differentindividuals might contribute in different forms to the “bricolage” of theselinguistic communities; however, this type of information might be obscured inlarge scale studies that aim for general patterns or major tendencies.

Chapter 8, “Pedagogy, Literacy and Identity”, and Chapter 9, “The Dynamics ofLanguage Distribution in Late-Modern Multilingual Singaporean”, complete theanalysis and offer an in-depth discussion of the topics addressed in the book.After the data analysis, the authors emphasize the connection betweenmacro-social structures, economy and linguistic policies. Also, they address thecontradiction between government-imposed language policies and what theadolescents actually do. More importantly, in light of their findings, theauthors call for a “reexamination of prevalent assumptions about the nature ofliteracy” (168). In Chapter 8, they challenge two approaches to languageeducation in multilingual societies: The Linguistic Human Rights and the GenreApproach. The Linguistic Human Rights is a paradigm that seeks to promoteminority languages whereas the Genre Approach “aims to make power varieties moreaccessible” (170). Both approaches rely on hegemonic views of languagecommunities where speakers have specific language identities. However, in theauthors’ data, it is clear that speakers have fluid language identities, whichare styled according to language markets with constantly evolving conventions.Therefore, the authors conclude their study with a call for revised languagepolicies and the adaptation of institutions to the linguistic reality of thecontext shown in the students’ narratives. They finish this chapter proposingways in which their research findings can inform specific changes in educationand governmental language policies.


“Style, Identity and Literacy” represents an accomplished and well-writtenexample of qualitative ethnographic methods applied to sociolinguistic research,which might be of interest to anyone teaching research methodologies or pursuingqualitative research. It also contributes to the understanding of “style” as asignificant factor in literacy practices and linguistic identity. The authorssuggest that “literacy practices can be treated as style” (76) and that this iscentral to learners’ linguistic choices. The latter is one of the most importantcontributions this book presents in that it proposes style as a “conceptualframework that integrates both adolescent activities and attitudes… permittinginsights on how identity impacts language” (67). Additionally, the study ofstyle 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 ofinformants (Chapters 5 through 7) proved to be a successful strategy to depict amultifaceted linguistic community. Concomitantly, interview narratives are atthe heart of this book, revealing that governmental views of the language inSingapore are ill-informed. The excerpts are carefully chosen to show how theinformants negotiate their linguistic identity when confronted with the manylinguistic conflicts present in Singaporean society. Most importantly, theydepict the fluid nature of linguistic identity, debunking traditional views thatportray 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. Forinstance, the finding of identity-based anxiety and its connection with theliteracy practices of the adolescents interviewed might have been neglected in alarger corpus or in quantitative methodologies. Likewise, the different ways inwhich individuals resolve their acceptance in diverse linguistic markets couldnot be easily captured using macro-corpus data and large-scale methods ofanalysis. Thus, in the debate of qualitative versus quantitative research, thisstudy proves that a focus on more qualitative aspects of language yieldsinteresting and applicable results. The former is obvious if we consider theclosing remarks included in every chapter that contain pedagogical implications,language planning suggestions and other different ways in which the theoreticalfindings could be grounded. Because of this, this book greatly contributes tothe emerging trend of qualitative studies bettering our understanding ofmultilingual societies.

Lastly, in addition to the wealth of interview data, the book also integrates aprofuse literature review. Therefore, it constitutes an excellent starting pointfor students or novice researchers in the area of language and identity,language planning, linguistic performance, and style. As an emerging topic inthe sociolinguistic arena, style constitutes a promising avenue towardunderstanding individual language variation. Furthermore, the topics discussedthroughout the book could be extrapolated to any multilingual society and thepedagogical issues raised could be of interest to educators working in the fieldof bilingualism or foreign language teaching. Readers will surely be challengedto revisit their thoughts on language and question their assumptions regardingsociety and language.


Bohman, J. 1999. Practical reasons and cultural constraint: Agency in Bourdieu’stheory of practice. In R. Shusterman (ed). Bourdieu: A Critical Reader (pp.129-152). Oxford: Blackwell.

Bourdieu, P. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press.


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”.

Page Updated: 09-Aug-2012