3.1 Language and identity

Language has long been seen as closely connected with identity in a number of distinctive ways. Traditionally, the language people speak has been connected with their national identity: English, Spanish, Japanese and so on. Within any one language there are different language varieties which are also connected with particular identities. In Britain, accent and dialect reflect a person’s regional and social identity. In the United States, speaking ‘Black English Vernacular’ is connected with being African-American. Sociolinguists have also studied differences of accent, dialect and communicative style in the language of people of different age groups and generations, in order to find out how languages shift and change over the course of time, and in men and women’s use of language, which has been seen as reflecting gendered socialisation practices and unequal power relationships.

It is also recognised that children and adults from different social groups bring different kinds of language resources into the classroom and that these influence their identity as a student. Particular uses of language and literacy are highly valued in the classroom and seen as centrally important for learning, and there has been considerable argument about how far the language of children and adults from various ethnic and class communities is different or deficient in relation to competencies required in educational settings (Bernstein, 1971; Labov, 1972; Michaels, 1981; Heath, 1983; Tizard and Hughes, 1984).

These associations of language use and group identity (class, gender, generation, ethnicity) remain significant, but a number of important theoretical shifts in the ways in which social scientists conceptualise the role of language in relation to other aspects of social life have had some profound implications for issues of language and identity. Briefly, there has been what is referred to as a shift from a structuralist approach, which conceives of identity as a relatively fixed set of attributes, to the post-structuralist notion of identity as a more fluid ongoing contested process, with people constructing and reconstructing various aspects of their identity throughout different experiences in their lives. Post-structuralists often use the term ‘subjectivity’ to indicate that ‘identity’ is a continual process of making the self, the subject. The term ‘identification’ is also used to emphasise that identity is an ongoing, interactive process rather than a fixed product. Throughout this section we use the term ‘identity’ because, ‘it is the everyday word for people’s sense of who they are’ (Ivanič, 1998, p. 10). But we use it to incorporate the post-structuralist emphasis on identity as a process rather than any fixed set of social attributes or roles.

The theoretical shift in ways of looking at identity is part of a more general acknowledgement within the social sciences of the importance of the dynamic processes of social life and the role of language within these. For instance, there has been an increasing interest in the way in which people use language collaboratively to accomplish intellectual as well as practical tasks. In sociocultural theory, which we explored in section 1, cognitive development is seen as socially driven, and knowledge as socially constructed, through the medium of teaching and learning dialogues. As we stressed in section 1, language is both the medium and the message of education. This more social constructionist approach sees knowledge not so much as a body of facts and information but rather as the outcome of particular kinds of social interactions and processes. It has also been applied to understanding other aspects of social life. So, for instance, social categories like class, gender or ethnicity are increasingly seen not as intrinsic labels of identity residing within the individual, but as experienced by people as a more or less salient aspect of who they are through their experience in different interactions and dialogues, across different contexts.

Alongside an increasing emphasis on the role of language in the ongoing construction of knowledge and identities, there has also been a growing recognition of the ideological nature and functions of language. Rather than being a neutral, transparent medium for expressing and constructing ideas, language use reflects ideologies, that is ‘systems of values, beliefs and social practices’ (as Hicks wrote in the first reading). The meaning of language in any specific interaction is shot through with these social and ideological associations, which are an intrinsic aspect of the immediate and the broader context. In this section, we are using the term ‘discourse’ in both the ways outlined in section 1, that is, to mean actual stretches of language in context, and systems of knowledge and cultural frameworks. An aspect of discourse that we will be focusing on in this section is the ideological dimension.

While some experts use Vygotskian ideas to argue that teacher–pupil dialogues, post-structuralists would argue that they also construct the identities of ‘teacher’ and ‘student’, and the practices and procedures of schooling. Furthermore, individual students will be identified, through the ways in which they participate in classroom dialogues (as well as through their written work), as particular kinds of students: for example, clever or stupid, good or bad. Similarly, teachers will become defined as good or bad teachers. From a post-structuralist view, therefore, dialogues do not only encode systems of beliefs, values and social practices, they also enact and therefore actually construct these systems, and produce particular aspects of people’s identities in the process.

A final point on the concept of context. Context can be defined in terms of the resources invoked by speakers to make sense of a particular communicative exchange. These resources may include:

  • the physical surroundings
  • the past shared experience and relationship of the speakers
  • the speakers’ shared tasks and goals
  • the speakers’ experience of similar kinds of conversation.
Mercer (1995)

In section 3, we shall also include within the notion of context the ways in which these resources invoked by speakers are shaped and given meaning through:

  • the nature of the social event in which speakers are involved (for example doing a crossword puzzle with friends or a classroom activity in school)
  • relevant broader cultural beliefs and values (e.g. about institutional roles and practices).

Of course, from the social constructionist point of view, as noted in section 1, these events, beliefs and values are at least partly constituted through the discourse itself. So, rather than seeing context as a kind of frame surrounding a communicative event, we need to think of a more dynamic relationship between the two. Particular aspects of the context are invoked by conversation participants in their construction of meaning, and language may also invoke other contexts away from the here and now, for example when people tell anecdotes or stories, or teachers ask students to remember what happened in a previous lesson. Finally, language can be used to change the context, for instance joking and teasing may signal the end of a formal meeting, or turn students’ class work momentarily into play.

3 Discourse and identity

3.2 Language variety, style and identity