LINGUIST List 24.2566

Tue Jun 25 2013

Review: Sociolinguistics: Pennycook (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 15-Apr-2013
From: Irene Theodoropoulou <>
Subject: Language and Mobility
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

AUTHOR: Alastair PennycookTITLE: Language and MobilitySUBTITLE: Unexpected PlacesSERIES TITLE: Critical Language and Literacy StudiesPUBLISHER: Multilingual MattersYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Irene Theodoropoulou, Qatar University

SUMMARYAlastair Pennycook’s fascinating book deals with ways to think and write aboutlanguage in a context of continuous entering into new places and being out of(familiar) places. It attempts to suggest answers to critical questions thatlie at the intersection of sociolinguistics, philosophy and critical pedagogy,such as how and why unexpected languages turn up in unexpected places. Itfocuses on the complex and multidimensional relationship among unexpectedplaces, language, locality and mobility, by drawing on a wide range ofcritical moments giving birth to different data sets from diverse historicalperiods. These data originate primarily from his family history and hispersonal cosmopolitan experience all over the world and span to moreimpersonal linguistic practices taking place in diverse contexts, includingfarewell speeches to British workers in colonial India, a Cornish anthem sungat a festival in South Australia, a country fair in rural Australia, and acricket match played in the middle of 19th century in south India. One of thecore arguments in this book is that language is not, or better still, shouldnot treated as something monolithic but rather as a set of resources, whichturn up in unexpected places, and their understanding depends heavily on ourability to critically reflect upon the trajectories of those resources. Thisargument is developed in a set of different directions.

Chapter 1, ‘Retracing Routes: Manjari Seeds and Nutmeg Trees’, introduces thereader to the idea of ‘mnemonic traces’, a term borrowed by Joseph (2007).These traces are ‘historically loaded shards of exchange permeating the ebband flow of global social exchange’ (p. 7). Echoing Derrida (1976), Pennycookargues that traces, namely places, people, things and ideas that are leftbehind, relate to the non presence of the Other, which needs to be invoked tounderstand the present, past and future. By illustrating how drawing on tracescan help understand people’s trajectories in both space and time, he talksabout his family’s journey to India by making specific reference to mnemonictraces, including tastes, smells, colors and languages, all of which offerinsights into history and wider recollection of the past. In a nutshell, theretracing of people’s and, eventually, our own steps allows us to ‘follow whathas been invisibly left behind’ (p. 15) and, in this sense, to search for‘mixtures that are part of our make up’ (p. 28). Such knowledge andunderstanding are important inasmuch as they can shed light on how mobilityinfluences language and discourse in the context of globalization. One of thebasic tenets of this mobility, according to the author, is the idea of‘unexpected places’, a term borrowed from Monica Heller (2007), which meansthat languages can emerge in all sorts of unexpected ways in places that werenever thought of as potential spaces for mobility. Such a place is the Hunancountryside in China, which is discussed extensively in chapter 3. Unexpectedplaces are picked up and elaborated upon in the subsequent chapters.

Chapter 2, ‘Turning Up in Unexpected Places’, teases out theoretically theidea of ‘unexpected places’ by correlating it with mobility, in the sense thatthe latter is the one that decides whether a place is expected or unexpected.This is due to the options it offers to people in terms not only of whichplace they can choose to move into but also in terms of who is eligible tomove around, how and why. This ‘politics of mobility’ (p. 24) is argued toaffect socio-cultural and political structures, which in turn influence theuse and change of language. Against this background, the author deals with theanalytical need to be alert to exploiting a critical moment by delving intounusual events occurring in places like classrooms. The merit of exploringsuch a critical moment rests on the idea that we can ‘investigate the pathwaysof thought that have blinkered our expectations’ (p. 37). In this way, newways of understanding the history and the overall context of language usagecan yield more nuanced accounts of the relationship between mobility andlanguage. One of the dimensions of interest is the relation of self toalterity, discussed in the next chapter.

Chapter 3, ‘Through Others’ Eyes and Thinking Otherwise’, focuses on what itmeans to ‘think otherwise’ (penser autrement), and also on questioning ourassumptions about what we (can) know about others. The illustration involvesthe appearance of an unexpected object (cheese) in an unexpected place (arural area in the Hunan Province, China, where there are no cows, hence dairyproducts are not known locally), which was read differently by differentpeople: for the Americans that brought it to China it was meant as a presentand as something to remind them of their country, or as an assurance ofbelonging or a reminder of the familiar; nonetheless, for the Chinese headcook who was invited to taste it it was just too different, ‘too alien’ (p.41). Drawing on intercultural communication and philosophy literature, theauthor argues that to do justice to these awkward critical moments, in whichwe react differently to the same stimulus, we need to learn how to unlearn.Through this critical engagement with cultural difference he points towardsthe importance of our becoming aware both of our own ways of thinking and ofother possibilities. This is because such thinking should allow us to questionthe expected, rendering the expected unexpected. In this sense, according tothe author, we can engage in a process of useful thinking and ‘unexpecting theexpected‘ (p. 45), which through its multidimensionality can help us in thedevelopment of socially useful programs, such as curricula.

Chapter 4, ‘Constrained Mobilities: Epistolary Parenting’, looks at the roleof letter writing within contexts of separation. More specifically, by drawingon personal letters sent by the author’s grandmother in India to his mother inEngland in the ‘30s and ‘40s the chapter delves into the ways identities arenegotiated across different places in a constant mobility. In this colonialcontext, where comings and goings of people and letters are considered to bethe norm for their communication, Pennycook argues that for those people thathome is always somewhere else, ‘life will always have a sense of displacement’(p. 72), which can be extracted by a meticulous analysis of past letters.

Chapter 5, ‘Resourceful Speakers’, argues for the analytical need to focus noton native vs. non-native speakers of (a) language(s) but on the idea ofresourceful speakers, namely people who do not necessarily have a full commandof a language but who can use language in such a way as to achieve thingslocally. In other words, the idea of a resourceful speaker, which is alsoembraced in the sociolinguistic literature of globalization (e.g. Blommaert2010), is identified with their ability to be able to shift between styles,registers and genres of speech in such a way that they ‘get local stuff donethrough language’ (p. 98). Examples include the ability to communicate ideasand information in a regionally peculiar way through the choice of ‘local’vocabulary and phonetic items, like the Bavarianization of the author’sGerman, indexed through phrases, like ‘mi hom’ instead of the Standard Germanphrase ‘wir haben’ or ‘hoost mi?’ instead of ‘hast du mich verstanden?’. Bydrawing on a number of entertaining anecdotes from his personal experience incountries, like China, Japan, and Germany, Pennycook argues for the need tolearn how to learn locally, in order for communication to be as smooth aspossible.

Chapter 6, ‘Elephant Tracks’, analyzes farewell addresses given by Indians forthe author’s grandfather and his network, while they were working as estatemanagers in India. The main argument put forward in this chapter is that thesefarewell addresses provide mnemonic traces of estate and colonial relationsbetween Europeans and Indians, inasmuch as they the echo caste system,linguistic diversity and general sociocultural patterns found in Indiacodified into a distinct rhetorical style and realized linguistically througha wide range of features. The addresses can be located within Indian norms ofpoliteness and interaction but with an ‘overlay of British and colonialrelations’ (p. 115). Their style is characterized by a combination ofelevated, Latinate vocabulary coupled with more colloquial touches, evident insentences like ‘venture to avail ourselves of this opportunity’ or ‘ratherthan selfishly pine at our bad luck our hearts go with you’. On the basis ofexamples like these the significance of local discursive, generic andstylistic practices is underlined, seen as a major factor contributing towardsthe organization of social life. It is exactly these local linguisticpractices that give birth to the texts, whereby we ‘understand the world’ (p.126).

Chapter 7, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard’, shifts the analyticalattention to critical pedagogy. More specifically, through the analysis of avisit to a language class to observe a teaching practicum, it seeks for waysto respond to critical (unexpected) moments in teaching and to turn them to awider critical agenda. Creatively and unexpectedly structured based on aWallace Stevens’ poems, the chapter puts forward the idea that unexpectedforms of writing can tell an applied linguistic story in a more efficient waythan academic prose. Critical education can be realized through unexpectingthe expected and unlearning the learned and its significance for shapingtomorrow’s citizens, who will be able to flexibly adjust to all sorts ofsociocultural linguistic circumstances, cannot be overstated. Localization oflanguage through mobility is further explored in the last chapter of the book.

Chapter 8, ‘Beyond the Boundaries of Expectation’, delves into therelationship among movement, mobility and indigenization. Pennnycook discardsthe term ‘indigenization’ because it presupposes ‘a static context, thatabsorbs practices from elsewhere’ (p. 156). Instead, he opts for‘localization’, which blurs the boundaries between what preexists in a societyor a culture and what comes from elsewhere; hence, it offers more flexibilityin the analysis of mobility and movement in general. As an example, Pennycooktalks about cricket. Its popularity among Indian men can be interpreted in atleast two different ways - it can be seen as ‘part of colonial culture,because it was seen to embody British ideals of muscular Christianity,teamwork and sportsmanship’ (p. 156). This would be the indigenizationperspective. Or cricket can be seen as ‘an Indian game accidentally discoveredby the English’ (p. 152), insofar as the game has a set of cultural practices,beliefs and ideologies, which render it more suitable to India than to England(Nandy 1989). In this sense, the local practices of India adopt the importedones of England. Seen this way from the perspective of localization, crickethas always been an Indian sport. Another example is the use of Cornish in afestival in South Australia. Through his discussion, premised on the idea thatlanguages do not exist as imagined wholes, thus they cannot die, Pennycookmakes the interesting point that Cornish is ‘reinvented, recreated, made intoa new hybrid object’ (p. 171) in moments when people sing a Cornish hymn. Itis exactly in mobile moments like this, in which a language gets renewed, thatit carries on existing and inspiring people.

In concluding this chapter, Pennycook suggests that a useful way to thinkabout language and how it is related to mobility and movement is to focus onpeople’s engagement in local language practices and try to understand what Ipersonally believe to be the core of the author’s main idea throughout thebook: how people ‘draw on linguistic resources, take up styles, partake indiscourses and do genres’ (p. 172).

EVALUATIONOverall, this original contribution to the fields of (critical)sociolinguistics and literacy studies aligns with very recent attempts toretheorize (or rethink) language against the backdrop of globalization as aset of resources, activated in various (un)expected contexts by leaving theirspatiotemporal traces in interactions (e.g., Blommaert 2010, chapters inCoupland 2010). One of its assets is the author’s engaging writing style,which tries in an unexpected way to conflate academic prose with literarytexts and epistolary writing style, and so bridges the robust academicanalysis with lay people’s linguistic and sociocultural choices. It thusprovides an analysis which is closer to the people, whose data are analyzed.Nonetheless, I would have welcomed a discussion of different types and levelsof unexpectedness, a comparison of these diverse data sets and contexts thatthe author draws on with a focus on the ways they differ from each other. Whatare the factors that this unexpectedness depends on? How is unexpectednessdifferent between styles (e.g., formal vs. informal) or registers and genresof speech (e.g., written vs. oral). The individual discussions of unexpecteduses of language in unexpected places and contexts isethnographically-sensitive, but all the same claims are made about language ingeneral. What is missing from a discussion like this, which in my opinionwould legitimize the proposed generalizations, is a general typology offactors constraining the function of unexpectedness. Apart from this, such adiscussion would also help theorize mobility in the context of socioculturallinguistics. Perhaps the book opens this as an avenue of future research.

In the end, the book serves as a valuable source for everyone interested inunderstanding how language works in a globalized and globalizing environment,characterized by extensive mobility and movement of people, ideas andproducts. Exactly because it combines academic and non-academic prose I wouldrecommend it not only to scholars in the fields of sociocultural linguisticsand literacy studies but also to lay people who are interested inunderstanding globalization through the lens of language.

REFERENCESBlommaert, J. (2010). The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Coupland, N. (ed.) (2010). The Handbook of Language and Globalization. Oxford:Wiley-Blackwell.

Derrida, J. (1976). Of Grammatology. Translated by G.C. Spivak. Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press.

Heller, M. (2007). The future of ‘bilingualism’. In M. Heller (ed.)Bilingualism: A Social Approach. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 340-345.

Joseph, M. (2007). Old routes, mnemonic traces. In D. Gosh and S. Muecke(eds.) Cultures of Trade: Indian Ocean Exchanges. Newcastle: CambridgeScholars Press, 62-75.

Nandy, A. (2006). The Return of the Sacred, the Language of Religion and theFear of Democracy in a Post-Secular World. Transforming Cultures AnnualLecture, 12 September 2006, University of Technology Sydney, accessed 15 April2013.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERIrene Theodoropoulou is an Assistant Professor of Sociolinguistics at QatarUniversity. Her teaching and research interests include discourse analysis,rhetoric, intercultural communication and sociolinguistics of globalizationwith a special focus on identity construction and language ideologies.

Page Updated: 25-Jun-2013