25.3394, Review: Sociolinguistics: Ramanathan (2013)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-25-3394. Thu Aug 28 2014. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 25.3394, Review: Sociolinguistics: Ramanathan (2013)

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Date: Thu, 28 Aug 2014 09:37:46
From: Ghislain Potriquet [potriquet at unistra.fr]
Subject: Language Policies and (Dis)Citizenship

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-3203.html

EDITOR: Vaidehi  Ramanathan
TITLE: Language Policies and (Dis)Citizenship
SUBTITLE: Rights, Access, Pedagogies
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Ghislain Potriquet, Université de Strasbourg

Language Policies and (Dis)citizenship begins with an introductory chapter
written by its editor. It opens on the definition of citizenship used
throughout the book; citizenship will be understood as a dynamic process, as
“being able to participate fully”. This understanding of citizenship departs
from the conventional view that citizenship amounts to a fixed legal status.
Translations from an English language textbook written for Gujarati
schoolchildren are used to justify the editor’s choice. When moved from one
language to another, a text or a person experiences a similar transformation:
each is mediated through another language that curtails their meaning. To
allow such a person to express themselves unrestrainedly, Ramanathan argues
that one must “unabashedly usher in history into applied linguistics, and view
each person speaking an alien tongue as a ‘historicized being’” (8). Such
awareness is a precondition to a new understanding of the interaction between
language and citizenship, between one’s language skills and one’s
participation in society.
Busi Makoni’s contribution focuses on a culture-­specific language variety of
Ndebele, “isihlonipho sabafazi”, which translates as “women’s language of
respect”. Makoni argues that this language variety further embeds the
discitizenship of women in Zimbabwe, a country where gender equality is
affirmed in a bill of rights, but also negated by the constitution’s
recognition of customary law. Makoni shows how discitizenship occurs by
examining the testimonies of women victims of rape. Isihlonipho sabafazi
prevents them from testifying against their perpetrators, because sex
discourses are forbidden by this language variety. Hence, a rape can only be
referred to as “to play a game of getting on the mat” (28-­29).
Aya Matsuda and Chatwara Suwannalai Duran’s contribution studies the
implications of constructing Americans as monolingual speakers. Their piece
actually discusses many other terms used to classify Americans according to
their linguistic abilities. To characterize Americans as English monolinguals
is not only inaccurate; it also runs the risk of reinforcing monolingualism
and restricting individual multilingualism (39). As to multilingualism, the
authors note that it too is often synonym with “non­-native speaker of
English” and call for the study of multilingualism as a feature common to both
native speakers of English and native speakers of other languages.
Emily Feuerhem engages in a critical interpretive approach of interview data
gathered among Iraqi refugees in the United States. Her goal is to understand
how policies of resettlement help refugees translate themselves to their new
country (53). Interviews and hours of observation conducted in a Sacramento
community center point to the multiplicity of this translation process.
Occurrences of “my country” in several refugees’ testimonies point to the
importance of comparing Iraq to the United States in the adaptation process.
“English” is another keyword that bridges these individuals’ experiences in
their home and host countries: “speaking English is bound up in issues of
external survival knowledge and fears of symbolic violence” (68).
Julia Menard-­Warwick questions the ideology of English as a tool for success
on the global marketplace. How do teachers of English working in Chile avail
themselves of this ideology? Using ethnographic data collected in a small
university, she unveils an interesting paradox: “despite claims that English
is important for success in Chilean society, very few teachers offered
concrete examples of times when they had found English actually necessary”
(79). Menard-Warwick also observes that English is valued by Chileans because
it grants them access to a foreign, global culture.
Gemma Punti and Kendall A. King choose an original object for their study:
multi level marketing companies. It appears that a high proportion of
undocumented Latino youths work to sell products such as Herbalife nutrition
products or Amway beauty products. This can be explained by these multi­-level
marketing companies’ language policies and discourses of advancement, authors
explain. Interviews and observations of two young Latinos working for such
companies, as well as an analysis of the texts and videos made available to
them yield many insights. Teresa L. McCarty asks how language and educational
policies may enable Native Americans to exercise their citizenship. She begins
her chapter with a reminder of the peculiar history of Native American
citizenship, and then refers to a concept she developed in an earlier study:
“safety zone”, or the “physical, social, psychological and pedagogic space in
which the federal government and other colonizing agents have deliberately and
systematically sought to distinguish ‘safe’ from ‘dangerous’ Indigenous
cultural beliefs and practices” (121). She then studies two Navajo public
school projects, which use different methods (immersion and dual-­immersion)
to foster the academic success of all students, regardless of their linguistic
background. By doing precisely the opposite of a majority of schools in the
United States (that is, to consider a child’s proficiency in a foreign
language as an impediment to the acquisition of English) these two schools
made possible the exercise of a Native American citizenship.
The following piece by Gopinder Kaur Sagoo examines an equally inclusive
environment in a very different setting. Her work focuses on a nursery founded
by the Sikh community of Birmingham, England. After providing her reader with
a brief overview of the history of pre-­K education in England, she analyzes
data collected on site (field notes, interviews, recordings). The nursery
school is imbued with the ideas of its founder, Bhai Sahib, a community leader
who has elaborated an understanding of citizenship consistent with the Sikh
faith, i.e. “‘a spiritual citizenship’ based on rights and responsibilities
assumed by virtue of being domiciled... as a human citizen on the planet”
(152). Analyses of verbal interactions between children and educators testify
to the inclusiveness of the nursery, where English and Punjabi are equally
Jacquelin Widin and Keiko Yasukawa’s contribution draws from ethnographic work
conducted in Australia. They conducted fieldwork in four different educational
programs catering to the needs of ESL adults. Against the backdrop of a
contested Australian citizenship test introduced in 2007, authors focus on the
development of a “third space”, where teachers and learners negotiate the
curriculum and redefine their identities. An illustration of this is the
interaction between a refugee from Guinea-­Bissau, who tells the story of his
watch, a present from his father. Instead of simply proceeding with the lesson
plan, the teacher allows this student to express himself, thus creating a
supportive environment for all refugees. This is no minor detail, as the
authors conclude: “Some of these learners may never achieve the kinds of human
capital outcomes that ‘count’ in the dominant discourses of who is a worthy
citizen (...) However, the Third space that these learners and their teachers
have created expands the space within which people can exercise citizenship”
Ariel Loring’s piece is situated against a similar backdrop; citizenship is
also very much debated in the United States (188). Loring looks at the ways
citizenship instructors enact citizenship in their classrooms. She draws from
ethnographic observations conducted in three different community centers. She
also interviews four different instructors, and finds that each has a
different understanding of what citizenship ought to mean. Interestingly, all
four instructors challenge the official discourse on citizenship: to integrate
with each other, not just with the American community is something that they
emphasize. Interestingly, some students continue to attend citizenship classes
after naturalization, (205), a fact that belies the notion that citizenship is
a mere legal status to be acquired once and for all.
The closing chapter of this volume is authored by Rosemary Henze and Fabio
Oliveira Coelho. In 2008, both got involved in a partnership project between
their university and a Nicaragua-­based non-­governmental organization. The
purpose of this partnership was to improve access to English in the rural
north. Instead of reaching its goals, this collaboration ended up
disempowering local teachers and students. Henze and Coelho explain why.
Teachers’ training is identified as a problem, but most importantly, they show
that “the rhetoric of English as part of globalization doesn’t fit the rural
communities’ realities” (244). They put forward an alternative curriculum, one
that would meet the needs of these communities and take into account the
material conditions under which a foreign language can be taught.
Vaidehi Ramanathan’s edited volume is certainly a daring endeavor. This
professor of sociolinguistics at the University of California at Davis had
already distinguished herself by exploring an unusual topic in Bodies and
Language: Health, Ailments, Disabilities and by dealing with it as
convincingly as humanely. Her latest contribution builds on her interest in
disability studies and hinges on a definition of citizenship put forth by
Dianne Pothier and Richard Delvin in Critical Disability Theory: Essays in
Philosophy, Politics, Policy, and Law, namely that citizenship “is about the
capacity to participate fully in all the institutions of society ­­ not just
those that fit the conventional definitions of the political, but also the
social and cultural.” (1) Central to Language Policies and (Dis)citizenship is
therefore the relation between language and participation.
In order for her endeavor to succeed, Ramanathan has rigorously edited the
eleven essays making up her volume. Such careful editing work is manifest in
the essays’ common approach (ethnographic) or their systematic reference to
Pothier and Delvin’s understanding of citizenship as participation. In
addition, each essay follows a similar structure that includes a clear
formulation of the research question(s), a presentation of the methodology and
very useful background information, among other things. Ramanthan’s editorial
rigor makes it possible for these eleven studies to form a coherent whole:
from a criminal court in Zimbabwe to secondary schools in rural Nicaragua, the
reader is given to see into the processes that end up depriving language
minorities of their full citizenship. Chapter after chapter, a similar pattern
emerges: discitizenship occurs when a linguistic norm, usually the vehicle of
social values, is forced on a people. All contributors highlight the
importance of fostering linguistic inclusiveness as a means to combat
discitizenship. Collectively, they demonstrate the validity of Ramanathan’s
initial approach, to move from the study of citizenship as a legal status to
that of citizenship as “being able to participate fully” (2013,1).
In Language Policies and (Dis)citizenship, Ramanathan takes a giant leap from
disability studies to sociolinguistics. Overall, her approach is very
convincing, but doubts may linger in the mind of an informed reader:
“discitizenship” when applied to a disabled person is one thing, but it
becomes another when applied to an individual who does not speak an official
language. For, to use a distinction made by jurists, language is not an
“immutable trait”: one may move from a category to another, from discitizen to
citizen, thanks to devoted language teachers, years of practice, etc. To this,
one may retort that not everyone can become proficient in another language
because of a number of factors such as age. Still, it remains to be elaborated
whether discitizenship can adequately describe the experience of someone who
happens not to conform to a linguistic norm. Our intuition is that it can, but
also that further work needs to be done to study the relation between language
discitizenship and the many other hurdles put on a person’s path to full of
citizenship (class, gender, race, etc.). Such conceptual work would also
further demonstrate the validity of citizenship as an object of
sociolinguistic inquiry, one that allows more comprehensive insights than
classical sociolinguistic concepts such as diglossia.
In short, Language Policies and (Dis)citizenship yields fascinating findings
and opens up an exciting area for research. The book reads equally well as a
whole or by chapter. Academics and graduate students will use the book as a
source of inspiration for papers and dissertations. Single chapters may be
used as reading material for an undergraduate course in sociolinguistics. Most
importantly perhaps, language policy makers around the globe would be
well­-inspired to read Ramanathan’s book.
Pothier, Dianne and Richard Devlin (ed). 2006. Critical Disability Theory:
Essays in Philosophy, Politics, and Law. Vancouver: University of British
Columbia Press.
Vaidehi Ramanathan. 2009. Bodies and Language: Health, Ailments, Disabilities.
Bristol, Multilingual Matters.


Ghislain Potriquet is an associate professor of American studies at the
University of Strasbourg, France. His research interests revolve around the
issues of language diversity and the law. He is affiliated to two research
centers: “Groupe d'Étude sur le Plurilinguisme Européen'(GEPE) and 'Savoirs
dans l'espace anglophone : représentations, culture, histoire' (SEARCH).

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