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Review of  Language and Identity

Reviewer: Sibo Chen
Book Title: Language and Identity
Book Author: David Ceri Evans
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 26.3577

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Language and Identity is a collection of twelve articles analyzing the interrelationships between language and identity and their associated complex socio-economic and cultural issues. The key message delivered by this volume is that identities are not only expressed through but also constructed by language. Daily linguistic phenomena are inscribed with ideological meanings and power struggles over identity expressions. Language thus serves as a ‘double-edged sword’ for identity, bringing both opportunity and marginalization. On the one hand, learning a new language such as English offers socio-economic opportunities and new ways for self-expression; on the other hand, the hegemonic status of dominant languages such as English and Spanish would lead to the silence of marginalized ethnic groups and even cultural death in extreme cases.

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 “theoretical overview” offers a synopsis of main theoretical perspectives on the interrelationships between language and identity. Chapter 1 introduces key themes of the volume and argues for a more comprehensive understanding of how verbal and nonverbal communication connect with a range of identity issues. Briefly speaking, the volume deals with four intertwined theoretical perspectives:

(1) Language as political-cultural capital: how language functions as a valuable economic and sociopolitical currency for daily communications

(2) Discourse: how knowledge and social realities are constructed through linguistic expressions

(3) Alterity: how language creates a dialogic sense of ‘otherness’ through the construction of identity

(4) Critical pedagogy: how the interactions between the learning of foreign language and culture and positive identity transformation offer opportunities for innovative pedagogical interventions.

By explicating different models of language and subjectivity, Chapter 2 further addresses the centrality of language in identity construction. This chapter engages with two philosophical paradigms of language. The first is a Cartesian view of language as exemplified by Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, which regards language as separate from self and thus an individual does not existentially inhabit language. By contrast, the second is a socio-cultural view that regards language as an integrated or even central part of one perception and construction of the world and thus language is always embedded in ideologies and power relations. By attending to the theoretical tensions between the two paradigms, this chapter concludes by proposing a socio-constructivist approach, a middle ground addressing the dialectical relations between language and identity.

Chapter 3 discusses key questions concerning language and social perception from a cognitive linguistics perspective by reviewing research on the famous yet controversial Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This chapter demonstrates that although language does not determine the perception of reality per se, it does influence social perception by offering different frames of reference such as spatial cognition and numeral system. As such, language serves as both claim for and indicator of identity.

Building upon the above theoretical perspectives, Part 2 “Languages, Discourses and Identities in the World” presents empirical cases studies that examine how ethnic communities negotiate between different languages and cultures within the context of escalating modernization and globalization. Chapter 4 focuses on ethnic immigrants’ attitudes toward English and French in Quebec and discusses identity issues associated with the province’s language policies. The chapter’s key finding is that although French’s shift from ethnic to civic conceptualizations of French has achieved some success among new immigrants since many of them regard French as an important means of solidarity, these immigrants’ shared social identity is not Quebec-based, but rather Montreal-based or age-based, with English as the primary in-group language.

In a similar vein, Chapter 5 addresses language education issues in the Xinjiang province of China where a trilingual model of Chinese, Uyghur, and English teaching has been gradually developed over the past several decades. This chapter shows the ways in which continuous tensions between the Uyghur ethnic minority and the dominant ethnic majority Han Chinese are expressed through struggles for linguistic and cultural identity. This unique context convincingly illustrates how language policies serve as a ‘double-edged sword’ for identity formation. The implementation of Mandarin in education and government systems has been viewed by many Uyghurs as an encroachment of Mandarin Chinese culture while many young Uyghurs believe that learning English can offer possibilities for the opening up of their identities.

Chapter 6 takes us back to the 19th century through a linguistic analysis of dialectic expressions in letters written home by early Irish emigrant in Australia. The analysis shows the co-existence of ‘old’ Irish and ‘new’ Australian dialectic expressions in these letters and how these letters to the ‘old home’ from Australia reinforced these emigrants’ emerging new identities in the new context of colonial settlement.

Language not only provides a tool for forming new identities, it is also a path for returning to former identities. Writing on indigenous education in the context of Brazil, Chapter 7 discusses the importance of the revitalization of tribal languages and its vital contributions to the liberation of indigenous identities among Amazonian Indians. The chapter draws heavily on Paulo Freire (1970)’s critical pedagogy framework and his critiques of the ''banking'' concept of education. It argues that contextualized pedagogical interventions should primarily aim at building conscious subjects to critically engage with their own social experience and life history. This critical insight introduces Part 3 of the volume, “Critical Pedagogies”.

Part 3 continues the discussions on marginalized groups’ resistances against the hegemony of dominant culture by exploring how educational engagements at a deeper cultural level would liberate both teacher and student identities. This part begins with Chapter 8’s interesting research on urban youth’s seeking of new identities through discursive practices associated with alternative physical practices. To be specific, this chapter writes about “unplanned” language performances of unicycling and how this alternative sport provides a new discursive space for young people to resist the mainstream athletic identities introduced by football, basketball, or rugby.

Both Chapter 9 and Chapter 10 attend to identity issues with modern foreign language (MFL) education. Foreign language learning offers an opportunity for someone to discover his/her ‘third place’ (Kramsch, 1998) and Chapter 9 introduces how drama plays in the process of MFL creates a safe ‘third place’ for students to experience and the cultural otherness brought by learning a foreign language. Based upon the same theoretical insight, Chapter 10 discusses the ideologies imposed by external socio-economic factors in MFL education. In contrast to the notion of importing stereotypical foreign languages and cultures in traditional MFL education, the chapter proposes a new pedagogical conceptualization that encourages students to actively appropriate foreign language and culture, thereby creating their own ‘third place’. The key insight granted by this alternative approach is the appreciation of alterity.

Chapter 11 shifts the analytical focus toward teacher training in building alternative paths toward effective MFL education. The chapter emphasizes teaching as a form of “cultural performativity” through which teachers learn and extend their skills. This insight departs from the traditional skill-based model of pedagogical training and creates new spaces for the once excluded social and interpersonal dimensions in the formation of teacher identity.

Finally, Chapter 12 offers a concise summary of the volume’s central themes and tentative thoughts regarding future research directions on language, culture, and identity. To be specific, the chapter returns to the notion of ‘discourse’ outlined in Halliday’s Systemic Functional Grammar and emphasizes language as a form of cultural capital: “language radiates outwards from its lexicogrammar towards sociopolitical identity through discourse accumulating political capital en route” (p. 230). As such, the volume ends with a call for further investigations into the complex relationships between multilingualism and emerging global identities.


First and foremost, this volume has synthesized and compiled a diversified body of research supported by accessible writing styles. Many readers would appreciate that the cases addressed in the volume are well elaborated by interesting background information and anecdotes, through which the readers come to understand the complex socio-economic, political, and cultural issues associated with language diversity. As such, this book would be a valuable reference for readers in anthropological linguistics, sociolinguistics, and discourse analysis, especially those engaging with topics related to linguistic and cultural minorities.

In addition, the volume also succeeds in its sound and diversified theoretical perspectives by drawing upon the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, Lev Vygotsky, just to name a few. In particular, the theoretical discussions in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 set out a comprehensive framework for future research.

Meanwhile, although the volume overall does a good job in focusing on a few key issues such as language diversity and critical pedagogy, the ambitious theoretical frameworks set out in Part 1 are somehow “lost in translation” in the following parts. To be fair, the chapters in Part 2 and Part 3 do address notions such as cultural capital, power, and ideology, but the discussions tend to be general, without sufficient contextual specifications or critical assessments. Thus, the chapters in Part 2 and Part 3 would benefit from more critical and politically engaging discussions. Many issues addressed in these chapters, such as the hegemonic forces of dominant languages and their threats to minority languages and cultural identities, are closely connected with social injustice; yet this perspective has not been well-articulated in all chapters. Another issue that may bother some readers is the lack of detailed methodological explanations in some chapters. Several chapters have adopted unstructured or semi-structured interview as the main research method, but the details of the interview procedures have not been fully revealed, which creates difficulty for replication of these studies in different language or cultural contexts.

As evidenced by the diversified topics in this volume, there is a growing desire worldwide for more research attention to linguistic and cultural minorities and it could be expected that the ideas gathered in this volume will stimulate further research into the increasingly important field of language and identity.


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Continuum.

Kramsch, C. (1998). Language and culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sibo Chen is a PHD student in the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. He received his MA in Applied Linguistics from the Department of Linguistics, University of Victoria, Canada. His major research interests are language and communication, critical discourse analysis, and genre theories.

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