LINGUIST List 31.2015

Thu Jun 18 2020

Review: Applied Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Seals (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 03-Apr-2020
From: Tracey Adams <>
Subject: Choosing a Mother Tongue
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Corinne A. Seals
TITLE: Choosing a Mother Tongue
SUBTITLE: The Politics of Language and Identity in Ukraine
SERIES TITLE: Multilingual Matters
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Tracey Adams, University of Texas at Austin


This book is intended for those who work in the social sciences and/or have a particular interest in Ukraine. It assesses the issues of studying a particular ethnic, cultural, and/or national group of people in a manner accessible to both specialists in sociology, history, linguistics, anthropology, et cetera as well as the lay person interested in Ukraine or diaspora communities in general. In this work, Seals informs the reader of the sociocultural context of Ukraine and Ukranian identity, then concisely situates her pilot and main study within this context. These studies culminate in the discovery of a surprising, yet common, narrative amongst Seal’s participants: changing one’s mother tongue.

She begins with an introduction to Ukraine, the Ukrainian language, and the modern (re: 20th century) sociohistorical history of the two as it pertains to linguistic purism, language ideologies and language policies. Having established a general foundation of her investigation, Seals pauses to demonstrate the utility of the specific approaches she employs to investigate identity and its representation in speech. She describes the post-structuralist framework as well as its connection to communication accommodation theory, emphasizing the fluid nature of identity and speakers’ agency in changing their self-representation through conversation. She then demonstrates the use of these concepts in research with Ukrainians in her 2009 pilot study and highlights the influence of globalization, immigration, and multiculturality in identity conception and expression as exemplified in her results.

In Chapter Three, Seals details the key events of the Ukrainian War and dives into the grit of discourse analysis, supplemented by practices outlined in interactional sociolinguistics. Via this method, she identifies four main discursive strategies that the participants of her main, 2014-2015 study use to position themselves and their views on the war. Key strategies include the use of the chronotope of the Ukrainian War and defining what it means to be Ukrainian, i.e. speaking Ukrainian (“good Ukrainians speak Ukrainian” discourse) and not being a rebel actor in the war. Then, in Chapter Four, Seals hones in on the linguistic strategies employed by participants to assign blame for the war, such as metonymy, juxtaposition and dialogism (Seals’ term for referencing past events). Finally, in Chapter Five, Seals presents a recurring commentary within her work, from which this book takes its name: the changing of one’s mother tongue.

Importantly, Seals notes that the term ‘mother tongue’ in Ukrainian holds multiple meanings but that it is used in her study to denote one’s dominant language (97). For Ukrainians in particular, there exists a strong link between language and lived experiences. As such, Seals calls upon the literature on language embodiment for her analysis. She finds that many participants use dialogism for events in Ukraine to reason their shift to Ukrainian, i.e., referencing the Orange Revolution, the Ukrainian War, the specific linguistic experiences of people they know, etc. Even some of her participants in the diaspora have shifted despite a lack of linguistic resources for themselves and their families. Notably, while war may certainly be argued as the catalyst for reassessing one’s identity, participants note many reasons for their shift. In concluding this chapter, Seals argues that changing their mother tongue supports the sociolinguistic notion that identity is expressed via language; however, it contradicts the idea from language embodiment that one’s identity is inseparable from one’s language (129).

In Chapters Six and Seven, Seals expounds on the nuances of changing one’s mother tongue amongst her participants. Chiefly, she proposes an “Immigrant Identity, Investment and Integration Model” that provides a broad basis for taking into account home country and host country effects on the identity and language use of immigrants. Her participants, however, also speak to the influence of their personal networks and the dynamics of the diaspora in their respective areas. Then, Seals presents data from her ‘younger’ participants, in their 20s and early 30s, who participate in a counter-discourse to “good Ukrainians speak Ukrainian” and appear to support the idea of a multilingual and multicultural Ukraine.

In her conclusion, Seals emphasizes the need to get to know the community a researcher is studying, especially if the research question concerns identity. Moreover, she promotes the use of a post-structuralist framework and the incorporation of interactional sociolinguistic techniques if one is conducting discourse analyses. Thirdly, she highlights the importance of taking account of events in the home country when one is working with a diaspora. Finally, in restating her key findings she suggests that language embodiment is more closely tied to indexicality, as seen in her data, then it is often considered to be in the research literature.


Seals does an exceptional job of assessing various influences on national, ethnic, and cultural identity and how diaspora communities echo, but do not exactly duplicate, discourses on identity and language in the home country. Importantly, she touches on the effect that the host country as well as a specific diaspora community, engendered by the idiosyncrasies of its members, have on diaspora communities. Her work does much to tie together avenues and methods of linguistic research that have long deserved dialogue with one another: language embodiment, interactional sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, and communication accommodation theory. For the most part, it is written in such a way to be both accessible and engaging to readers of various backgrounds. In addition, although the visual aids were sometimes confusing in their monochromatism, particularly in the introduction, comprehension of material was rarely skewed. One can see multiple routes of research stemming from this work but it would be worthwhile first to define some of her tools and analyses further.

Notably, one of the ways in which she depicts the dialogism invoked by her participants could benefit from a bit more explanation. To begin, discussion of the strategies used by her participants was strongly tied to the notion of a chronotope, whose definition she takes from Bakhtin (1992). In her analyses, Seals explains that many of her participants make use of the chronotope of the Ukrainian war, beginning with a description of it as a space and time “when friends become enemies” (48). However, throughout the monograph, Seals’ use of this term is not limited to this description but appears to tie to any positioning toward, event during, and result of the war. Since a majority of the data presented centered around the Ukrainian war, this fluid meaning becomes a bit muddled in the work, at times indistinguishable from the general notion of dialogism also used to analyze the data.

In addition, her intuitions on youth counter-discourse merit further investigation. Though we only get a snapshot of her work, Seals clearly has an abundance of rich data that speaks to identity conception and negotiation. The data we see in Chapter 7 raises follow-up research questions. It would be worth seeing, for instance, if there’s any correlation between these views and living in Ukraine, or having only recently moved, especially since Seals already comments upon the differences between language attitudes in the country versus those advertised to and taken up by the diaspora (Chapter 6). It also seems important to investigate any correlation between these views and having Russian-speaking parents while growing up in the West.

In terms of bridging the divide between linguistic subdisciplines, though not a major argument in the work, her study fits well within the literature on communication accommodation theory and should be considered by those conducting research within this field as well as in other subdisciplines of linguistics. Her model for immigrant identity conception and negotiation, in particular, matches well with the model of accommodation and the goal of context specification proposed by Gallois et al. (2005). Otherwise, that ‘mother tongue’ holds various meanings in Ukrainian poses some methodological issues for sociolinguists. That is, mother tongue is often used by researchers in linguistics to refer to the first language that someone speaks. Yet, it is clear in this work that this is not universally understood by participants. Instead, as it is used in this monograph, it can refer to the language one most identifies with and/or one’s dominant language, among many other options. This poses some evident issues in terms of wording for methods involving interviews and questionnaires that should be taken into consideration. Furthermore, the broader argument that, despite common belief about language embodiment, a people who so strongly link their language with their lived experiences - in essence, their life and personhood - would voluntarily change their mother tongue also deserves further discussion. In particular, the bridge that Seals builds between embodiment and indexicality opens up several avenues of research. Researchers might consider analyzing this relationship in places subject to strong language policies and politics. That is, (i) do citizens in these places embody their ‘mother tongues’, and (ii) do they change their mother tongue or present it differently to comply with authority when their nation, or region, undergoes change in language policies or when conflict with language politics arises? Research on this topic could naturally be in dialogue with the literature on heritage speakers as well. Though not mentioned in this monograph, changing one’s mother tongue has long been noted in the literature concerning immigrants and language maintenance versus shift (see e.g. Paulston 1986).

In sum, Seals presents a multifaceted and elegantly cohesive depiction of the linguistic situation in Ukraine and its diaspora communities. In addition, though speaking about a specific people, she presents a nuanced picture of its individual members, successfully working around the problem of essentialization that typically accompanies this type of research. It is likely that her insistence on a post-structural approach and emphasis on sociocultural history aids her in this endeavor and should be strongly considered by others in the field as well as those in history, sociology, anthropology, and political science. Those who pick up and engage with this book will surely find it a useful reference in a variety of contexts.


Bakhtin, Mikhail M. 1992. The dialogic imagination: Four essays. Austin, TX: University of
Texas Press.

Gallois, Cindy, Tania Ogay & Howard Giles. 2005. Communication accommodation theory: A
look back and a look ahead. In William B. Gudykunst (ed.), Theorizing about intercultural communication, 121-148. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Paulston, Christina B. 1986. Linguistic consequences of ethnicity and nationalism in multilingual
settings. In Bernard Spolsky (ed.), Language and Education in Multilingual Settings 25, 117-152. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.


Tracey Adams is a PhD candidate in French Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. Adams' research interests include sociolinguistics, phonetics, bilingualism and language contact. She is currently researching Arabic-speaking diaspora communities and the negotiation of identity in Montreal, Quebec.

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