Selves in Two Languages: Bilinguals' Verbal Enactments of Identity in French and Portuguese. Michèle Koven. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 2007. x+315 pp.
Article first published online: 11 MAR 2010
© 2010 by the American Anthropological Association
Special Issue: Rethinking Autism, Rethinking Anthropology: Guest Editors: Nancy Bagatell and Olga Solomon
Volume 38, Issue 1, pages 1–3, March 2010
How to Cite
Numanbayraktaroglu, S. (2010), Selves in Two Languages: Bilinguals' Verbal Enactments of Identity in French and Portuguese. Michèle Koven. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 2007. x+315 pp. Ethos, 38: 1–3. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1352.2010.01105.x
- Issue published online: 11 MAR 2010
- Article first published online: 11 MAR 2010
In 1996, Lucy concluded his seminal essay on linguistic relativity with the remark that research in linguistic relativity needed to be broadened beyond its traditional preoccupation to include an examination of the potential effects of diversity in expressive uses of language on personal and social functioning of individuals (1996:63). Since then, only a handful of scholars have answered Lucy's call and seriously tackled the question of discursive relativity. Koven's recent work, which explores French-Portuguese bilingual women's experiences of self in and through their languages, is a welcome addition to this slim scholarship.
Koven's analysis springs from the observation that bilingual daughters of Portuguese immigrants living in France “feel that they are a different person in each of their two languages” (p.11). In order to study this experience, Koven adopts a discourse centered approach, and investigates the ways in which the Luso-descendents utilize semiotic resources of their languages “to enact and experience their multiple identities” (p.1). Koven's ably argued and well supported work inquires into why Luso-descendents feel differently across their languages, and provides significant insight into the broader issue of the role of language in “self-presentation and experience for the same individual across contexts” (p. 237).
The theoretical framework of the book draws on linguistic anthropological work on discourse and identity. Koven's analysis is informed by a conception of language as an essential component of the emergent context of the discursive interaction, and it takes identities experienced and displayed in such contexts to be constituted through indexical mediation. Indeed, previous scholarship in linguistic anthropology successfully documents that nonreferential indexical forms, such as dialect and register choice, are essential means of instantiation of identity, stance, and affect in discourse. Koven's work, however, expands the theoretical focus of this tradition to include the psychological impact of the linguistic constitution of identity on bilingual speakers. Through a sophisticated design that is comprised of four complementary studies (interviews with the bilinguals, formal analysis of bilinguals speech, “listeners'” reflections on bilinguals' speech, and finally, a closer examination of two individual cases), Koven presents a comprehensive and carefully built account of the Luso-descendents' experiences across their languages.
Luso-descendents navigate a linguistic space that is densely populated with sometimes incongruous language ideologies. While their French is youthful and similar to that of their monolingual French peers, their Portuguese, which reflects the rural roots of their parents in Portugal, is “old speech.” Despite their conception of self as a stable and inherent entity, Koven's participants, who are equipped with a metapragmatic insight into some of the complexity of this space, report feeling differently across their languages. These self-reports are confirmed by “listeners,” who, after hearing stories told by bilinguals in both languages, find the speakers embody different “styles of persona” in each language (p.169). In general, most bilinguals were judged to be more aggressive or assertive in French, and backward thinking and passive in Portuguese. Koven's formal analysis of these stories provides us with clues as to why: In retellings of the stories, bilinguals adopted non-equivalent speech forms in their two languages. In French, they used more colloquialisms and obscenities in the interlocutor role and in quoting themselves in the character role. In Portuguese, colloquial language and obscenities were primarily used when quoting others. Through these divergent strategies, bilinguals presented socially recognized personas within different roles, with which they associated or from which they distanced themselves.
The unique analytical framework adopted by Koven for this formal analysis deserves special attention. To determine whether people consistently displayed “persona and affect” (p.111) differently in two languages, Koven compares the “voicing” patterns of bilinguals' stories as they occurred across different “speaker roles” (narrator, interlocutor, character etc.) and in different registers (i.e., unmarked-everyday, familiar, formal, vulgar, other language). This framework enables the operationalization of the processes of footing and voicing, and sets Koven's work apart with its analytical novelty and elegance from the majority of a growing literature on reported speech and footing in discursive interaction.
Koven's multi-faceted and well-supported work is not free of some weaker points. One such point is her interchangeable use of the terms person, type of person, self, identity, persona, personality, presentation of self, and aspects of self without defining them or explicating relationships among them. This conceptual imprecision takes away from the validity of Koven's conclusion that not only personas and identities but also selves of bilinguals shift across their two languages. There is ample evidence in the book to support the argument that bilinguals present different identities, personas, and aspects of their selves across languages. However, this evidence does not readily support Koven's argument that “selves are inextricably embedded in and emergent from the pragmatics of discursive interaction” (p. 4). For, the dialogicity of these processes does not preclude the possibility of a unified self, whose presentation as well as development is mediated by language (Bakhtin 1986, 1990; Mead 1967; Voloshinov 1973, 1976). Indeed, in Koven's discussion, we also find evidence pointing toward this latter direction. Teresa, a Luso- descendent, for example, finds public registers of honorifics in Portuguese as non- egalitarian and excessively hierarchical, which is an ideology that follows from her linguistic habits in French (p.181). Isabel, another Luso-descendent, on the other hand, complains about how in Portugal she succumbs to a foreign mentality and is forced to behave in a way that is alien to her (p.213). These examples suggest that moral and ethical values can endure across interactional contexts, even across those contexts that are culturally and linguistically significantly distinguished. Without proper delineation of self and identity, any conclusion about their relations to language and context necessarily remains incomplete.
Koven's work employs a novel approach to studying the impact of language on bilingual women's experiences of identity and self, and offers a significant contribution to studies of discursive relativity, bilingualism, and language and identity. Koven presents complex concepts in a clear and concise manner. She skillfully integrates scholarship in diverse research traditions, and puts forward an analytical tool that would be exceptionally helpful for future research in voicing and footing. Despite some minor omissions (my copy was missing an appendix and the index), this book would make a great addition to libraries of those of us who are interested in the processes of linguistic construction of identities.
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