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The notion of community: language and group identity

The development of Nation States and their monolingual policies is intimately tied to the symbolic value attributed to language. As Romaine (2004: 388) puts it, “most nation-states are “imagined communities” which have come into being at least partly through the spread of national languages and print literacy.”

Baquedano-Lopez & Kattan (2007: 73) remark on the influence of the notion of an “imagined” community in expanding the boundaries of what is conceived of as a speech community, as community members sense a feeling of communion with other members they might never have met.

Ideology, qua “set of beliefs about language articulated by users as a rationalisation or justification of perceived language structure and use” (Baquedano- Lopez & Kattan 2007: 83) cannot be disregarded when analysing linguistic landscapes and their evolution. We will learn below that schools are key sites for putting such ideologies into practice and perpetuating the status attributed to the language(s). In this respect, Garda et al. (2006: 37) argue that “schools are, in their work of teaching the standard national languages, responsible for one of the most prevalent linguistic ideologies - constructing a unidirectional link between language and ethnicity.” Not surprisingly, this link is conceived of as exclusive to one language. However, the alleged homogeneity associated with the concept of a community (in particular, at the ideological level) contrasts with its heterogeneous characteristics (Baquedano-Lopez & Kattan 2007: 71).

Indeed, although language is one of the key factors when defining a community it is not the only determiner. As pointed out by Romaine (2004: 386) “language becomes intertwined in complex ways with various other indicators of group membership.” We need to take into consideration that bilinguals “interact in many kinds of networks within communities, not all of which may function bilingually” (Romaine 2004: 386). Hence, it seems, the more recently developed “fluid, multiple, and shifting notion of community” is better suited to capture the reality of many individuals who participate in various (at times conflicting) communities (Romaine 2004: 386), invoking “practices and beliefs of their numerous affiliations” (Baquedano-Lopez & Kattan 2007: 73). Some authors use the notion of a community of practice, a notion originally used to refer to communities that are “situated within specific goal-oriented economic activity” (Baquedano-Lopez & Kattan 2007: 77) to highlight the role of perceived solidarity where “the linguistic choices made by members play an important role in constructing meaning and social identity” (Romaine 2004: 387).1 [1]

Language, as becomes apparent in these observations, is not only used as a means of communication, but is also a symbol of group identity, accompanied by attitudes and values held by its users and people who do not use the language (Grosjean 1982: 117). Language attitudes and patterns of language use in linguistic minorities are subject to pressures of various kinds (e.g. economic, administrative, cultural, political, religious, etc.) (cf. Baker 2001; Romaine 1996). Such pressures may ultimately lead to language shift or language loss, as is reflected in the decline of the original languages of linguistic minorities in several countries, such as the USA or Australia. In other cases, socio-political developments might lead to a revitalisation of formerly endangered languages. Language policy and language planning play a fundamental role in these processes (cf. Baker 2001, Reagan 2001, Romaine 1996). Studies on language attitudes have shown (Grosjean 1982: 119) that minority language groups often adopt the negative attitudes of the majority group toward them, at times, being more negative about themselves than the dominant group. Speakers of a stigmatised minority language often do not use it in public, even if interlocutors also know the language (Grosjean 1982: 125), which may ultimately lead to language shift, whereby the members of a minority language group give up their language henceforth using only the majority language. However, the stigmatisation of the minority language might also have the opposite effect in that it reinforces group solidarity and the symbolic value of the language (Grosjean 1982: 126), the self-empowerment of the deaf communities during the last two decades being a case in point (see section

  • [1] An additional dimension elaborated in the literature concerns the identity of bilingual individuals. To acknowledge participation in multiple communities, some authors have adopted amultidimensional view of the bilingual individual’s identity and investigated how it is negotiatedin different contexts (Garcia et al. 20 06: 35). Following Baquedano-Lopez and Kattan (2007: 87)identity is “fluid, dynamic and discursively created according to the cultural systems in whichpeople are located both spatially and temporally”. With respect to bilingual situations the authors(2007: 89) conclude that “identity formation in language contact situations is an ideologicallyinformed process that changes over time while also reproducing social norms and expectations.”
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