Review:urban etiquette for monolinguals

2013-02-01 00:00:00
According to the CIA World Fact Book, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the country in the world with the highest immigration rate: around 19% of the population are Emirati nationals and everyone else here is an immigrant. Around 50% of the population are South East Asians, 23% are Arabs and Iranians, and 8% come from elsewhere. With these kinds of population statistics it is hardly surprising that Abu Dhabi is a very multilingual place and pretty much everyone learns to speak bits and pieces of other languages. In their book chapter about “Teen life in the United Arab Emirates”, the authors write that all young people in this country grow up bi- or multilingual “except the children of Western expatriates who remain monolingual” (p. 239). I find that very puzzling – not the statement, but the actual fact. I have no doubts that the observation itself is correct – many of my American, Australian and British acquaintances who have raised children in Abu Dhabi or Dubai confirm that their children haven’t learnt Arabic (nor any other language). It’s the fact itself that I find puzzling.

So, here is a research challenge: much has been written about how people learn second or additional languages but has anyone ever researched how some people manage to not learn other languages despite being surrounded by them? If there’s any budding sociolinguist in search of a PhD project out there: “Not learning to speak another language:” an ethnographic study of Western expatriates’ language trajectories in the UAE (or any other multilingual context of your choice)” is a PhD study I’d love to supervise.

In the meantime, I wouldn’t be worth my salt if I didn’t have some preliminary observations to offer. It all seems to start with willfully ignoring the existence of languages other than English. Many English speakers tell me “no one here speaks Arabic.” Hello?! Around 40% of the population of the UAE (see above) are native Arabic speakers. Surely, that’s not exactly a negligible quantity. And how can you overlook all those Arabic (and English, i.e. bilingual) streets signs and billboards and ads and other signage in the public space?

If I point out any of those, then I get the response “oh yeah, but everybody speaks English.” That is certainly true (to various degrees) but – seeing that all these people around the world make an effort to speak English, why is it that monolingual English speakers (and, I hasten to add, the monolinguals of some other languages) find it so hard to extend the same courtesy to speakers of other languages? So, I declare that greetings, congratulations, apologies, and thank-yous in the language of the person you are speaking to are de rigueur for any self-respecting contemporary urbanite!

And, in my experience, starting with those everyday expressions is the first step to learning how to speak another language: fake it till you make it!


Caesar, J., & Badry, F. (2003). United Arab Emirates. In A. A. Mahdī (Ed.), Teen life in the Middle East (pp. 229-246). Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press.


Review:sociolinguistics 2 0

2013-01-29 00:00:00
Where once we expected students to move into our media world (into grown-up, serious media, taking a newspaper every day), today we’re pouring into theirs, signing up to Facebook and dabbling with Second Life. Where once lecturers would expect to know more as their careers progressed, with Professors representing the apex of knowledge in their discipline, today that has been inverted: the older we are the more our qualifications and knowledge rest upon the past. Both students and lecturers, of course, vary in their technical competence and interest, but the general pattern is difficult to deny: new technologies, applications, content, activities, behaviours, modes of consumption and new relationships with older forms are reconfiguring our media worlds, and academics are having to work harder than their students to keep up. (Merrin, 2009, p. 25)

Of course, this makes me want to sulk at the injustice of it all wouldn’t you know it, no sooner do I become a professor, it turns out a professor is no longer the apex of knowledge … just my luck!

However, the argument that Merrin and Gauntlett make for Media Studies rings true for Sociolinguistics as well: the subject of Media Studies has transformed to such a degree that a transformation of the “broadcast-era discipline” – Media Studies 1.0 – is required as well. The observation that the advent of digital media has fundamentally changed the way people use media and that Media Studies needs to reinvent itself to stay with it, strikes me as a bit of a no-brainer. But does the argument also hold water for sociolinguistics? Are there too many (applied socio)linguistics students out there who thought they were studying language (teaching) when they enrolled and found they were studying linguistics? Has language in social life changed so fundamentally to shake the core of the discipline?

Here, I am offering some random arguments in favor of the need for Sociolinguistics 1.0 to be transformed into Sociolinguistics 2.0 (or call it L.CoM if you like

# 1. Multilingualism is normal

When my 6-year-old child attends a birthday party of one of her classmates, they sing the “Happy Birthday” song in English (global practice of having birthday parties), German (the language of their school) and Arabic (the language of the UAE, the country in which they live). These kids have a multilingual consciousness – in their world the fact that different people speak multiple and different languages is as normal as the fact that people have different looks. I’m not sure this has ever been different for most of the worlds’ people. However, one of the foundational assumptions of sociolinguistics is of multilingualism as a special case that needs to be treated separately from the monolingual default. I’ve just gone through all the sociolinguistics textbooks on my shelves (and there are a few of them …) and all of them have one or more chapters specifically devoted to “bilingualism/multilingualism/language contact/diglossia” – i.e. they treat multilingualism as a special sociolinguistic condition that is out there but the default is presumably monolingualism. Of course, the default doesn’t have a name, it’s just “language” and “multilingualism” is thus made to look special. Let’s make multilingualism the default of Sociolinguistic Enquiry 2.0 and treat monolingualism as the special case it is.

# 2. Language is always embodied in communication

Have you ever come across disembodied language? Spoken language without an irritating accent, a charming timbre? Written language without a dreadful color scheme on a website, small print flickering quickly across the screen? It obviously matters who says something, how they say it, through which medium they express it, when and where they say it. However, linguistics has worked hard to abstract all those “incidentals” of “language use” away from the discipline to be able to make claims about the universal system. As a scientific discipline, linguistics has had its greatest triumphs in phonology and syntax. Sociolinguistics – just like semantics and pragmatics – have a much more tenuous claim to being a “hard science” and one way sociolinguistics has been trying to compensate is through abstracting away from real language as much as possible to be able to make general statements about “the system”. Sociolinguistics 2.0 will make communication in social life a more central facet of the discipline.

# 3. The native speaker is dead

For the majority of students for postgraduate degrees in Applied Linguistics, TESOL or English (Socio)Linguistics at Australian and British universities English is an additional language. They are overseas students aspiring to a degree from a country in the “center” of the English-speaking world. Even so, these same programs for the most part continue to treat English in the “periphery” as marginal. A glance at module lists is instructive: electives such as “English beyond Britain” (treely ruly as the Muddleheaded Wombat would say! A citation would be unkind …), “English as a Lingua Franca” or “English as a Global Language” again point to the default assumption: the default is the English of the “center countries”, which is assumed to be equivalent to native-speaker-English. However, most of what is interesting in English sociolinguistics is currently happening in the periphery: be it the akogare (=desire) of some young Japanese women for English Kimie and I have written about; or the role English language learning and teaching played in turning Beijing into an Olympic City as investigated by our forum moderator Jenny Zhang – to name just two examples from the work I am involved in. Although the native speaker was declared dead more than 20 years ago (Paikeday 1985), the native speaker – and, more recently, it’s assumed opposite, the non-native speaker, continue to flourish in (applied and/or socio)linguistics, ignoring the experience of the majority of the world’s English speakers for whom the notion has become a straight-jacket. Sociolinguistics 2.0 will need to get over its focus on the native speaker in the center.

# 4. A language with a name is an idea not a fact

Michael Billig (1995) coined the term “banal nationalism” to describe all those mundane forms of nationalism that produce and reproduce the nation – such as the daily weather forecast on TV, which even in the smallest landlocked nation is presented against the background of a national map as if the weather was tied to national boundaries. Irritatingly, for any critical sociolinguist, the ToC of many journals in the field reads like a list of textbook examples of banal nationalism: study after study of this, that and the other thing in this, that and the other national language. Bourdieu (1991, p. 45) says it all:

To speak of the language, without further specification, as linguists do, is tacitly to accept the official definition of the official language of a political unit.

Sociolinguistics 2.0 can and must do better! Let’s stop pretending that English, German, Japanese or any other language with a name have some kind of primordial existence and are not in need of further explanation. The interesting questions are around language as “a cause, a solution, a muse for the national self, and a technology of the state” (Ayres 2009, p. 3). Btw, Ayres’ study of the language-nation-culture link in Pakistan offers a great example of Sociolinguistics 2.0 research!

# 5. “All uses of language are equal” – Not!

The overseas students mentioned above flock to universities in “center” countries not only because the degree programs there are so great but because they also want to improve their English. However, their chosen course of study collectively negates that ambition by making the equality of all language use one of its foundational assumptions. While I’m not as acidic as Mark Halpern about the refusal of many linguists to recognize that various ways of using language are rarely equally received in the real world, I cannot help wondering why so many linguists, and even sociolinguists, insist on defying common sense when it comes to the idea that all language is equally good. Our students know their writing needs improving, future employers know it, the whole world is talking about it, so Sociolinguistics 2.0 will have to engage with questions of standards and good (and bad) usage in order to remain relevant or regain relevance.

This blog post is too long already so I’ll keep some other arguments for a transformation of the discipline over for some other time (e.g., the disconnect between academic (socio)linguistics and the (English) language teaching enterprise which undergirds the discipline; the colonial roots and neo-colonial entanglements of the discipline). In the meantime, I’m looking forward to your feedback!

As with Gauntlet’s and Merrin’s proposal for Media Studies 2.0, the L.CoM challenge is not only about different content. It is also about different ways of creating and disseminating knowledge, it’s about open-sourcing the discipline. And so I’ll end with another quote from Merrin (2009, p. 31):

Web-publishing allows more to be published, making it immediately available to everyone for free, instead of only to those who can afford the increasingly expensive books or who have access to subscribing libraries. We need to give up our desperate collusion in the academic evaluation of the worth of publication outlets, embrace the web and take our ideas out of the academy to a global audience.


Ayres, A. (2009). Speaking like a state: Language and nationalism in Pakistan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Billig, M. (1995). Banal nationalism. London: Sage.

Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power. Cambridge: Polity.

Gauntlett, D. (2009). Media Studies 2.0: a response. Interactions: Studies in Communication and Culture 1(1), 147-157.

Merrin, W. (2009). Media Studies 2.0: upgrading and open-sourcing the discipline. Interactions: Studies in Communication and Culture, 1(1), 17-34.

Paikeday, T. M. (1985). The native speaker is dead! An informal discussion of a linguistic myth with Noam Chomsky and other linguists, philosophers, psychologists and lexicographers. Toronto: Paikeday Publishing.


Review:irtual conference breaking down the barriers

2013-01-26 00:00:00
I know I’ll be particularly interested in the paper about language and communication in the Spanish conquest of America ( The other sociolinguistics papers look decidedly Sociolinguistics 1.0, though. But it never hurts to look outside the discipline and there is going to be some great stuff from geography, too …

The topics offer a great interdisciplinary spread but at the same time it’s a bit disappointing to see a conference devoted to “breaking down the barriers” and headed by a visual from the fall of the Berlin wall so firmly in the hand of UK & US academics. A shame the conference organizers didn’t think to look outside the monolingual walls of the usual Anglophone hegemony …


Review:jasmin tabatabai german persian and english in tehran and berlin

2013-01-23 00:00:00
In the feature article Jasmin speaks about the good fortune of having grown up with two languages and tells how much she loves both languages and cultures. The journalist must have asked the usual dumb question about whether growing up bilingual hadn’t made her feel “conflicted” (the German word they use is zerissen (“torn apart”) and I like her answer: no it’s normal in the same way that you love your mother and your father and no one ever asks whether having two parents makes you feel conflicted!

Although it might seem like a contradiction, Jasmin goes on to say that she is not raising her own daughter bilingually but in German only. The child is “of course” exposed to Persian and English (presumably it’s impossible to grow up in Berlin or anywhere else in the world today without being exposed to English …). So, the child is actually growing up multilingually with German as the main language. While growing up with German and Persian was special in Jasmin’s generation (she’s 42), being in a multilingual environment is so normal for her daughter (who is 6) that it doesn’t even count as growing up bilingual anymore! (which brings me back to one of my arguments why sociolinguistics needs a paradigm shift)

I like the normality of it all! At the same time, Jasmin is scathing about fellow-Germans who speak English with their children in order to raise them bilingually and all they teach them is “English with a German accent.” I couldn’t agree more – rearing children is hard enough without trying to do it in a foreign language …


Review:book reviewing

2013-01-20 00:00:00
Book reviews in Discourse and Society are usually around a 1,000 words in length and due within 3 months of receipt of the review copy. Reviews should provide an overview of the contents of the book as well as a well-argued judgment regarding its place in the field and its likely importance to the readers of the journal. I do not accept mere content summaries and as always it’s important to know your audience, i.e. to actually get a feel for the journal before starting to write your review.

Currently, I’ve got the books listed below available for review in Discourse and Society. If there is anything in your area of expertise, please feel free to get in touch.

Bassiouney, R. (2009). Arabic sociolinguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Clark, H. (Ed.). (2008). Depression and narrative: telling the dark. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Doerr, N. M. (2009). Meaningful inconsistencies: bicultural nationhood, the free market and schooling in Aotearoa/New Zealand. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

Falzon, M.-A. (Ed.). (2009). Multi-Sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Galasinska, A., & Krzyzanowski, M. (Eds.). (2009). Discourse and Transformation in Central and Eastern Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gardner-Chloros, P. (2009). Code-switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garner, M., Wagner, C., & Kawulich, B. (Eds.). (2009). Teaching research methods in the social sciences. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Harden, G. B., & Carley, R. (2009). Co-opting culture: culture and power in sociology and cultural studies. lanham: Lexington Books.

Hasan, R. (2009). Semantic variation: meaning in society and in sociolinguistics. London: Equinox.

Huspek, M. (Ed.). (2009). Oppositional discourses and democracies. London: Routledge.

Hussein, L. M. (2009). the internet discourse of Arab-American groups. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press.

Krinsky, C. (Ed.). (2008). Moral Panics over Contemporary Children and Youth. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Light, J. S. (2009). the nature of cities: ecological visions and the American Urban Professions, 1920-1960. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Ramallo, F., Lorenzo Suarez, A. M., Rodriguez-Yanez, X. P., & Cap, P. (Eds.). (2009). New approaches to discourse and business communication. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Schechet, N. (2009). Disenthralling ourselves: rhetoric of revenge and reconciliation in contemporary Israel. Madison and Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Shon, P. C. H. (2008). Language and Demeanor in Police – Citizen Encounters. Lanham et al.: University Press of America.

Simpson, P., & Mayr, A. (2009). Language and power: a resource book for students. London: Routledge.

Stommel, W. (2009). Entering an online support group on eating disorders: a discourse analysis. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Trianfafyllidou, A., Wodak, R., & Krzyzanowski, M. (Eds.). (2009). the European public sphere and the media: Europe in crisis. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vannini, P., & Williams, J. P. (Eds.). (2009). Authenticity in Culture, Self, and Society. Aldershot: Ashgate.


Review:halloween mystery

2013-01-17 00:00:00
One dad in our trick-or-treating party figured Prestÿ was German: “Don’t you guys put umlauts on everything?” “No.” I figured it was Turkish but am told that a y with umlaut does not exist in Turkish, either. At least, Turkish is an educated guess seeing that the wrapper also has “Sütlü Çikolata” written on it. “Sütlü Çikolata” is Turkish for “Milk Chocolate” – the other bit of language on the wrapper I recognize.

Further clues: The candy was found in a trick-or-treat bag in Abu Dhabi and so can be presumed to have been purchased in the UAE although there is no Arabic writing on the wrapper. There is no country-of-origin information on the wrapper, either, although there is some illegible small print under something that looks like “asas” and which might conceivably contain statutory information if it were not too small to be legible. Googling “Elvan chocolates” produces a further Turkish connection: Elvan is the name of an Istanbul-based company producing chocolates and pastries for “more than 70 countries over 6 continents.”

Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether Prestÿ “exists” in any real language – as long as people associate it with a particular language and transfer the associations they have with that language onto the product, Prestÿ is doing its job. Along the lines “I suppose Prestÿ is German for ‘prestige’ so the qualities of German must apply to the chocolate, too.” Mostly, German is associated with cars and technology, though, where it tends to be used to connote high quality. I know because I’ve written a few research papers on the iconic use of foreign languages in advertising and if you want to follow up on multilingualism in advertising, you can find some of my research papers in our resources section.

More likely, Prestÿ is just supposed to be “general European” and supposed to connote the sophistication of European chocolate and cuisine. There’s a lot of multilingual meaning-making on this humble little piece of junk and I would love to hear your interpretations!


Review:what has western masculinity got to do with english language learning for japanese women

2013-01-14 00:00:00
Now, apparently they are sending World champion ironman Shannon Eckstein to Tokyo, trying to woo young Japanese women to Australia.

Using western masculinity to entice Japanese female customers is a trick that many English language schools have relied on for many years, too. This is something Ingrid and I know very well through our research on Japanese women’s ‘akogare,’ or desire, for Western men and how it’s linked with English language teaching/learning.

In their teenage years, all our participants wanted to learn English, for example, to write a fan letter to Tom Cruise or understand what their favorite singers were singing about. Many of them wanted to find a western boyfriend, who, in their view, would be more romantic than Japanese men. Our participants considered finding an English-speaking partner as a killing-two-birds-with-one-stone-approach – enjoy much-admired Western-style romance AND have an in-house English teacher.

One of the interesting developments out of this akogare phenomenon is the Relationship English business. There are many textbooks, websites, and magazines that claim to teach Japanese women how to conduct romantic and sexual relationships with foreign men in English. One of the Relationship English textbooks we have analyzed is called “Roppongi English” and it’s probably one of the most bizarre ‘textbooks’ we’ve ever seen.

The problem with the discourse of Relationship English is that they often perpetuate existing negative stereotypes of culture, gender and sexuality in the context of cross-cultural romantic relationships. In the case of Roppongi English, for example, a traditional Japanese woman is described as socially and sexually demure and has a well-educated chivalrous White boyfriend who is caring and romantic. On the other hand, a Japanese woman who grew up bilingually in LA is portrayed as sexually loose and gets into a dysfunctional relationship with a divorced and aggressive Black American man. Here is a website which talks about Roppongi English and comments there from the general audience will give you some insights into the public discourse of cross-cultural romance in the Japanese context.

Roslyn Appleby of the University of Technology Sydney is looking at another aspect of cross-cultural romance and the ways it is exploited in global and local economies. She is exploring the concept of “Charisma Man” and shows how Western men who are considered ‘losers’ in their home countries can transform themselves into chic magnets as soon as they land in Japan where many women would put the men up on a pedestal just because they are White and English- speaking.

Now back to the tourism campaign. It may be a tough time ahead of Australian tourism officials. The young Japanese women I know have no headspace to think about holidays at the moment – they are either super-busy finding work or super-busy at work (because so many of their colleagues have been made redundant) or just busy holding on to their job.

I wish Tourism Australia and Shannon Eckstein success…. although even Hugh Jackman, ‘the sexiest man alive’, apparently didn’t quite pull it off…


Review:negative and positive writing

2013-01-11 00:00:00
One of the sad effects of a certain form of English management-speak spreading to every corner of the globe is that it sucks the life out of the language as Don Watson noted so eloquently in Death Sentence. What do we make of a discipline such as psychology if “negative,” “neutral” and “positive’ are the height of sophistication with which to reflect on “moods”? On a recent flight to Australia, the cabin crew advised us shortly before landing that anyone “feeling unwell” should report to a flight attendant. I felt very unwell after 14 hours sitting in the same uncomfortable spot and I’m pretty sure everyone on the plane felt similarly “unwell.” No one reported to a flight attendant maybe because everyone knew that they were after flu symptoms. However, the guy two rows in front of me who had been coughing and sneezing for 14 hours didn’t report either – and I can’t blame him: if no one else of the other passengers who were clearly also “unwell” with swollen feet, queasy stomachs, stiff necks etc. felt it necessary to report their “unwellness” why should he report his?

All this leads to the question whether the person who wrote the announcement (it was clearly read off and I’d heard it before) was “in a positive mood” when they wrote this useless statement or whether it’s just that so many writers suffer from an impoverished vocabulary?


Review:when your english is too good

2013-01-08 00:00:00
Many native speakers take it upon themselves to judge the English of people who don’t speak their brand of English. In the case of migrants to Australia this is most often to point out some deficiency: the judgment that someone’s English isn’t good enough has become a key facet of social exclusion and the judgment is used to keep migrants out of jobs or keep them in jobs below their qualifications. In fact, migrants, and particularly refugees, have become so firmly associated with “poor English” in the public imagination that having good English is now being used in the media to judge whether a refugee is “genuine” or not. I’m talking about the spokesman for the asylum seekers who were stuck on the Oceanic Viking until a few days ago. Both the fact that he is using an English name (Alex) instead of his “real” name and the fact that he is “well-spoken” and speaks “English with an American accent” have been held against him and have been used to discredit him. This is from an ABC interview:

MARK COLVIN: And the High Commissioner also said, I’ll quote “Alex’s accent is quite a distinct American accent. It is not the accent of a Sri Lankan Tamil”. ALEX: Does the Sri Lankan High Commissioner feel that people in Sri Lanka don’t have American accents or British accents? Is there not international schools in Sri Lanka? Is there not people that do accent training for call centres and various other customer care services? MARK COLVIN: So you trained in a call centre? ALEX: Pardon me? I was trained in a call centre for an American call centre.

Alex himself has apparently been as surprised as I am that his high level of English proficiency could come to discredit his claim to refugee status:

[Alex] has expressed surprise over the fact that how his American accent English could become a reason for the rejection of his refugee plea. “Just because I speak English, and I was educated in an American boys mission school in my home town, and then I finished my BA, and then I finished my MBA in India, so does that mean I am not a refugee?

“We are facing genocide in Sri Lanka — it’s not about whether you are educated or not educated. Just the fact that you are Tamil, [...]

A true Catch 22 story: call center operators all over the world as well as many migrants to Australia have to change their names to make it in an English-speaking world; similarly, they have to adjust their accents so that they sound less “foreign” to their far-away call-center customers or close-by employers.

Around the world learning English comes with the promise of social advancement and inclusion in the mythical “West” – just to be told “Ooops, overshot the mark, you’re too good to be genuine.”


Review:two caravans

2013-01-05 00:00:00
A great novel, which will do more for your understanding of language, migration and human rights in our times than many a learned journal article in the field is Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka. It’s a novel about a group of migrant agricultural workers in the UK. One of the linguistic gems of the novel includes a conversation between a British farmer and a Ukrainian university student, who is picking strawberries on his farm. Irina’s English is quite proficient and the following excerpt is a good example of intercultural miscommunication where the miscommunication is entirely the native speaker’s fault:

He spoke slowly and very loudly, as though I was deaf as well as stupid, waving his hands about.

‘NO GOOD. NO BLOODY GOOD. YOU’VE GOT TO PICK FASTER. ALL FILL UP. FULL. FULL.’ He swept his arms wide, as if to embrace all his pathetic punnets. ‘DO YOU UNDERSTAND?’

No, I didn’t understand – the shouting was flustering me.




‘I get blood on road?’


‘I get silly cow on road?’

‘OH! FORGET IT!’ (p. 35)