Linguistic identities

Linguistic Identities

Joseph Sung-Yul Park

[An entry for Mark Juergensmeyer and Helmut Anheier (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Global Studies, 1080-1084. Thousand Oaks: Sage. 2012. A brief overview of issues in language and identity relevant to the study of globalization.]

In the context of global studies, linguistic identities may refer to the sense of belonging to a community as mediated through the symbolic resource of language, or to the varying ways in which we come to understand the relationship between our language and ourselves. These are closely related aspects of how we position ourselves in social context through language, and globalization has significant implications for how these aspects unfold. Linguistic identities become central in globalization due to the fact that movement of people, ideas, products, and cultural forms across national boundaries intensifies contact among languages. Hybridity and multiplicity introduced by linguistic exchanges on local and global levels open up new possibilities of identity work and a more complex space in which we come to understand our place in the world. Also, changing experiences of work and social life lead to new conceptualizations of the self, leading to alternative understandings of the relationship between language and identity. In particular, neoliberal transformation of work has led to an increasingly flexible linkage between language and its speaker. These trends make language a central issue in understanding the question of identity in the context of globalization.

Relationship between local and global languages

Debates surrounding linguistic identity in the global world has often centered on the question of whether globalization leads to greater homogeneity of language and culture across the world or to reactionary emphasis on local identity as expressed through local languages. On the one hand, new global and regional languages appear to be encroaching upon the domains of language use previously occupied by local languages, most notably in the areas such as education, science, commerce, and popular culture. As the domains for local languages gradually shrink, the status and value of those languages suffer a loss, which may discourage the intergenerational transmission of some of those languages, ultimately pushing them into the status of endangered languages. On the other hand, globalization also seems to lead to a renewed emphasis on local identity, and local languages are often mobilized as symbolic resources for such drives. The heightened sense of reflexivity introduced by globalization often gives rise to strengthened assertions of local identity, whose unadulterated essence is assumed to be best represented by local language and culture. Thus, various forms of linguistic purism arise, “defending” the local language against the influence of global languages that appear to deteriorate the purity of local cultural values and ways of speaking. Under this view, then, linguistic identity is basically a site of conflict between the local and the global, with local languages serving as a key weapon against the onslaught of global ones.

Recent work on language and globalization, however, is generally skeptical about viewing the relationship between global and local languages in such oppositional terms. This is because of the following reasons. First, it is problematic to assume a pristine purity of local language and culture that precedes the influence of globalization, for such images of essential identity are better viewed as discursive and ideological constructs. For instance, Benedict Anderson’s famous work has shown that national languages, which are often treated as natural evidence for the cultural and affective unity of a nation state, must be seen as socio-political inventions that arise from the suppression and erasure of minority languages and dialects that necessarily exist within the bounds of a country. As the notion of essentialism, or the belief in natural, inherent connections between a social group and its cultural characteristics (including language), is increasingly problematized across various disciplines, it is better to view the link between local language and local identity as a matter of constant negotiation and reproduction, rather than a natural bond that is threatened by the influence of global languages.

Second, contact between local and global languages does not necessarily result in conflict, as speakers are always capable of extending and modifying their linguistic repertoire and incorporating multiple languages into more complex articulations of one’s sense of identity. A great majority of the world’s population are in fact multilingual, and while their movement across multilingual space may become a site of great tension or language loss (e.g. for seriously marginalized linguistic minorities), in other cases it is a rich source of new, hybrid identities which do not always imply contradiction and confusion. Indeed, most studies on the state of languages in the world show that, while many smaller languages of the world are reaching endangered status, a mass movement towards homogenization of languages is not taking place; what we see instead is more widespread multilingualism involving global, regional, and local languages.

Thus, even though tension between global and local languages can be real, researchers now agree that a more sophisticated framework of understanding is needed, one that takes into account both issues of power and local creativity, and one that recognizes the hybridity and fluidity of identities in the global world. Current studies on language and globalization tend to focus on how the conditions of global transformation open up spaces in which newer kinds of relations and issues come to be integrated into how speakers and communities position themselves through language. While it is probably the case that linguistic difference and multilingualism have always served as a key resource for the articulation and negotiation of identity in social context, the contingencies of globalization locate such processes within a social matrix of greater complexity, thus giving rise to new issues that must be grappled with as speakers and communities engage in identity construction through language.

The case of English, as the global language par excellence, is illustrative of this point. The emergence and spread of English is closely tied to the history of colonialism, giving rise to various “new Englishes” in post-colonial contexts such as India, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. It is now widely accepted that such language varieties should be seen not as degenerate forms of English corrupted by interference from local languages, but as varieties of English that deserve equal status with traditional “native speaker” varieties such as British or American English, with its own structural regularity and systematicity. Also, it is recognized that the widespread use of such varieties among local speakers does not necessarily constitute a blind desire to adhere to the language of the colonizer, but may be seen as a valuable vehicle of local cultural expression and identity construction. At the same time, however, those varieties cannot be understood apart from the more complex web of ideologies that positions them within a global space of power. Thus, despite their emergence as recognizable local varieties of English, they are still positioned as “non-standard English” within a broader market of English, where “standard English” is by definition modeled upon the language of the erstwhile colonizers. Such ideological evaluations may in turn be reapplied locally; for instance, the local elite with better access to more globally recognized forms of English through educational opportunities may assume a more authoritative position in relation to speakers who only have access to local varieties of English. In the case of Singapore, for instance, official language policies promulgated by the government condemn the use of the local variety, Singlish, and the ability to speak “standard English” offers much socioeconomic advantages, despite the fact that the local variety is used predominantly across a wide range of contexts in society, and strongly recognized as an expression of local Singaporean identity. In this case, the issue becomes much more complex than the opposition between adoption of and resistance towards English, as speaking different varieties or accents of English has implications for one’s place within a social spectrum that intersects both local and global relations of power and identity.

Social meanings of languages

Recent studies which attempt to understand language and identity in globalization focus on the intricate network of social meanings that languages come to accumulate through their circulation across the world, identifying this process as a key to how globalization opens up a space for complex and rich articulations of identity. In the context of globalization, the indexicality of language, or the property of language that conveys social meaning by pointing back to previous contexts of usage, becomes increasingly complex, as multiplying channels for cultural circulation and growing awareness of how language is used across the world enrich the range of significances that may be invoked through the use of a particular language. To use the example of English again, its widespread use allows the language to invoke many different contexts and meanings, ranging from the memory of colonialism, global consumer culture, and modern science to various appropriation of the language by local speakers. A speaker who uses English in his or her talk, then, depending on the specific form of English adopted, may invoke many different images, positions, and identities. In addition, the resultant identity may be highly complex and hybridized, as such language use may, either purposefully or inadvertently, point to multiple social contexts and situations simultaneously. More importantly, such use in itself becomes another prior context which adds to the complex indexicality of English, leading to an even more multifaceted meaning.

This means that understanding local appropriations of English can become a highly complicated analytic task, as the identities indexed through English may span multiple scales, from global relations of colonialism and capitalist markets to local class relations and cultural production. One field that has been instrumental in illustrating this complexity is the research on English in global hip hop, best exemplified by Alastair Pennycook’s work. When hip hop artists in Asia adopt English in their music, for instance, the identities they perform through their language choice may transcend the fixed dichotomy between the local and the global; the use of English in itself does not mean aspirations for a “cosmopolitan” identity, while mixing in local languages does not automatically imply claims of localness. It may be the simultaneous use of both languages that is important here, highlighting the flexibility and adaptability of the performers’ identity. And yet, such performances must also take into consideration, and will be understood in relation to, various constraints on multiple levels, such as the distinct norms of the global hip hop community and local structure of the culture industry. This demonstrates that what is significant about linguistic identities in globalization is not simply the multiple meanings linked to a language variety, but how such meanings intersect disparate levels and social orders, an instantiation of what Jan Blommaert calls the polycentricity of language.

Researchers have also highlighted how adaptation of global and local languages may contest fundamental conceptions of language and identity, potentially indicating a shift in the way the relationship between a language and its speaker is imagined. Under globalization, acts of appropriating the language of others are not constrained by traditional norms of linguistic ownership or competence, as speakers may adopt linguistic forms to which they would not normally make claims of ownership. For instance, Asian youths may take up African American English in their speech as an expression of “coolness,” even though their actual command of the variety may be limited and clearly they are not making claims about racial or ethnic identity as commonly associated with that variety. This practice, known in sociolinguistics as “crossing,” denaturalizes the essentialized connection between language and identity, and underlines how speakers may actively utilize the indexicality of language to construct their identity and to position themselves as subjects. In this sense, linguistic identities in globalization emphasize the constructed, fluid nature of identities.

Commodification of language and communication

In particular, the logic of capitalist economic globalization introduces a powerful incentive for the denaturalization of the tie between language and identity. Due to the growing importance of the service sector, development of telecommunication technologies, and transformations in the meaning of work, we are observing a trend that is described in sociolinguistic literature as commodification of language and communication, in which linguistic competence and modes of communication come to be treated as commodifiable resources. For instance, global call centers in India train their workers to adopt the languages and cultural identities of their clients. When the call takers use Western names and American accents to introduce themselves to the clients in the US, for instance, they are not supposed to see it as a betrayal of their Indian identity, but simply as putting on a mask that enables them to more effectively carry out their job. The underlying assumption here is that language can be easily detached from identity and commodified, as the ability of the worker to command a “native speaker” variety of English is not seen as having implications for his or her identity, but as just another skill that may be picked up and mastered in response to demands of the workplace. Commodification of language involves not only specific language varieties, but more general stylistic ways of speaking as well. One example is how corporations increasingly emphasize to their service staff the importance of “communicative skills” such as active listening and display of empathy in order to enhance consumer loyalty and smoother corporate communication. Again, such modes of communication are not seen as natural reflections of the speaker’s “true” emotions, but interpreted as a work-skill that can be activated and deactivated at will.

Such transformations are closely related to the discourse of neoliberalism, where the worker is seen as a “bundle of skills.” In particular, the flexible and non-heirarchical workplace of modern corporations values “soft skills,” skills which characterize the way the worker manages one’s self and interpersonal relations through the mediation of language, attitudes, habits, and moral values, in contrast to technical skills that are more specific to particular tasks. As one of the soft skills, good communicative skills have become an important characteristic of the ideal worker in the neoliberal job market. Thus, training in effective communicative skills, which teach the worker how to convey one’s ideas clearly and to persuade others efficiently, for instance, gains much popularity. Similarly, in many countries, learning and improving one’s skills in the dominant global or regional language (such as English) becomes an important way of staying relevant to the changing workplace.

Commodification of language and communication raises important questions for linguistic identities. Most importantly, it problematizes the notion of authentic identity, the idea that one’s language use is inalienably tied to one’s authentic self, one’s true provenance in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and other social categories. Commodification destabilizes such beliefs in linguistic performance as a site for authentic identity, as workers are encouraged and demanded to take on alternative identities through their language use as part of their work routine. While some workers may actively embrace such synthetic personae as required by their work, taking pride in their ability to freely adopt multiple guises as a valuable skill, others may perceive such demands of the workplace as conflicting with what they consider to be their true feelings and sense of self. For instance, service workers may complain that they are expected to maintain an image of friendliness and attentiveness throughout their communication with abusive clients while being constantly monitored for their effectiveness in how many customers they can process within a given amount of time. For the workers these may be seen as conflicting demands, which place upon them a great burden of “emotional labor,” or the work of managing the client’s and one’s own affect and emotion, without allowing the workers to attend to their sense of authentic identity.

This does not mean that the image of authentic self is any more “real” than the model of flexible connection between language and identity, however. As discussed above, the seeming naturalness of identities based on entities such as nationhood are historical constructs, and even categories such as gender must be understood as social constructs that we build up based on biological distinctions of sex. As language is one of the prime resources employed in the construction and performance of such identities, the authenticity of identity categories must also be seen as constantly constituted through language. A major effect of globalization on this work of linguistic construction of identity is that it continuously brings our attention to the fluid, constructed, and imagined nature of such identities, while simultaneously serving as a constraint on how identity work may be carried out. As subjects in a global world, we incessantly need to manage our position between multiple forces, including that of neoliberal capitalism, ideologies of the nation-state and national languages, global flows of cultural production, complex indexicality of global and regional languages, sense of belonging to local communities, and beliefs about our own selves. This complexity intensifies the role of language in interpreting, negotiating, and articulating who we are, making linguistic identities a key for understanding how we position ourselves in the global world.

Further Readings

Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Blommaert, J. (2005). Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bucholtz, M. (2003). Sociolinguistic nostalgia and the authentication of identity. Journal of Sociolinguistics 7(3), 398-416.

Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. (2004). Language and identity. In A. Duranti (Ed.), A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology (pp. 369-394). Malden: Blackwell.

Cameron, D. (2000). Good to Talk?: Living and Working in a Communication Culture. London: Sage.

Cameron, D. (2005). Communication and commodification: Global economic change in sociolinguistic perspective. In G. Erreygers (Ed.), Language, Communication, and the Economy (pp. 9-23). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Fishamn, J. (Ed.). (1999). Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pennycook, A. (1994). The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. London: Longman.

Pennycook, A. (2007). Global Englishes and Transcultural Flows. London: Routledge.

Rampton, B. (1995). Crossing: Language and Ethnicity among Adolescents. London: Longman.

Urciuoli, B. (2008). Skills and selves in the new workplace. American Ethnologist, 35(2), 211-228.