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Language crossing as act of identity


One way of surviving culturally in immigration settings is to exploit, rather than stifle, the endless variety of meanings afforded by participation in several discourse communities at once. More and more people are living, speaking and interacting in in-between spaces, across multiple languages or varieties of the same language: Latinos in Los Angeles, Pakistanis in London, Arabs in Paris, but also Black Americans in New York or Atlanta, choose one way of talking over another depending on the topic, the interlocutor and the situational context. Such language crossings, frequent in inter-ethnic communication, include, as we saw in Chapter 4, the switching of codes, i.e. the insertion of elements from one language into another, be they isolated words, whole sentences, or prosodic features of speech. Language crossing enables speakers to change footing within the same conversation, but also to show solidarity or distance towards the discourse communities whose languages they are using, and whom they perceive their interlocutor as belonging. By crossing languages, speakers perform cultural acts of identity. Thus, for example, two bilingual i i-year olds from Mexico in a US American school. in is telling F what she does when she comes back from school. in and F usually speak their common language, Spanish.

M: Mira, me pongo a hacer tarea, después me pongo leer un libro, despues me pongo a hacer matemática, después de hacer matemática me pongo a practicar en el piano, después de terminarse en el piano =

F: = you got a piano?

M: I have a piano in my house, don't you guys know it?... No me digas que no sabía ... yo lo dije a Gabriel y a Fernando ... todo el mundo.

[M: Look, I do homework, then I read a book, then I do science, I do math, after doing math I practice the piano, after I finished with the piano =

F: = you got a piano?

M: I have a piano in my house, don't you guys know it? ... Don't tell me that you didn't know ...I told Gabriel and Fernando ... everybody]

(Unpublished data from Claire Kramsch)


The fact of owning a piano marks in as belonging to a different social culture than F who shows his surprise - and his distance by using the dominant Anglo-American language. in acknowledges her membership in that culture by responding in English, but immediately switches back to Spanish to show her solidarity with her Latino peers in the classroom, who come from more modest backgrounds.

Refusing to adopt the same language when you are seen as belonging to the same culture can be perceived as an affront that requires some facework repair, as in the following radio interview between two Black American disk jockeys (DJ1, DJ1) and a Black American singer (SG):

DJ1: So whatz up wit da album shottie?

SG: What's up with the album shottie

DJ1: Oh, excu:::se me. How are things progressing with your upcoming album?


Come on, girl! you know what I'm sayin'. You know you know da terminology! Don't front!

DJ2: Yeah, an' if ya don't know, now ya know


DJ1: Or at leas ack like ya know!

SG: I know, I know, I'm jus' messin' wit y'all.

(Unpublished data from Claire Kramsch)


Language crossing can be used also for more complex stances by speakers who wish to display multiple cultural memberships and play off one against the other. Not infrequently speakers who belong to several cultures insert the intonation of one language into the prosody of another, or use phrases from one language as citational inserts into the other to distance themselves from alternative identities or to mock several cultural identities by stylizing, parodying, or stereotyping them all if it suits their social purposes of the moment. Thus, for example, the following stylization of Asian English or Creole English by Pakistani youngsters, native speakers of English, as a strategy to resist the authority of their Anglo teacher (BR) in a British school.

BR: attention gents

Asif: yeh alright

Alan: alright

Asif: yeh

Kazim: (in Stylized Asian English) I am very sorry ben jaad

/ai æm veri sori ben dзa:d/

Asif: (in Stylized Asian English) attention benjamin

/'then∫a:n bendз'min/

BR: concentrate a little bit

Kazim: (in Creole English) stop moving dat ting aroun

/dæt ti∩) aiaun/

(Rampton, Ben. Crossing: Language and Ethnicity among Adolescents. Longman 1995, pages 115-6.)

When speaking of cultural identity, then, we have to distinguish between the limited range of categories used by societies to classify their populations, and the identities that individuals ascribe to themselves under various circumstances and .in the presence of various interlocutors. While the former are based on simplified and often quite stereotypical representations, the latter may vary with the social context. The ascription of cultural identity is particularly sensitive to the perception and acceptance of an individual by others, but also to the perception that others have of themselves, and to the distribution of legitimate roles and rights that both parties hold within the discourse community. Cultural identity, as the example of Edmond Laforest shows, is a question of both indenture to a language spoken or imposed by others, and personal, emotional investment in that language through the apprenticeship that went into acquiring it. The dialectic of the individual and the group can acquire dramatic proportions when nationalistic language policies come into play.


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