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Winter 2008

Youth, language and identity, by Joan Pujolar

This special issue of Noves-sl makes a further contribution to the well stoked tradition of studies and reflections on youth and language in Catalan Sociolinguistics. This has been partially motivated by the fact that one of the priority objectives of the 2005-2006 Action Plan of the Secretariat of Linguistic Policy was the promotion of the use of Catalan among young people and included, among other measures, conducting and publishing studies on this subject. In any case, this issue does not intend to make an exhaustive study of the “state of the art” of research on language and youth. In this introduction, I would like to analyse the progress of this research work in the Catalan sociolinguistic context from a point of view that links political and theoretic questions. Following that, the contributions made by various authors are divided into two sections: in the first, three articles show new approaches to the study of the linguistic practices of youths; and in the second there is a collection of the most recent studies carried out (and which we have been able to publish here) on language and youths in Catalonia. On the basis of these articles, I would also like to discuss the theoretical and epistemological changes taking place in sociolinguistics both on a Catalan and international level, and which directly affect the approach to research on youths and language.


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1. The large number of studies on youths and language
2. Theoretical displacements in research on youths and languages
3. About the contributions to this issue
4. Bibliography

1. The large number of studies on youths and language

The subject of youths has been one of the most studied in Catalan sociolinguistics. The editors of Noves-SL asked me to coordinate this issue on the basis of some of my studies (Pujolar 1993, Pujolar 1997). But they could also have talked to other people with the same merits; Bastardas (1985, 1986), Boix (1990, 1991, 1993) , Erill et al. (1992), Calsamiglia and Tusón (1980), Tusón (1985, 1990), Ros (2000, 2001), Woolard (1989) or Woolard and Gahng (1990). It is equally important to remember that any analysis of census data or representative samples usually has its section dedicated to the “age” variable and to the corresponding analysis of the linguistic practices of youths (see, specially, that by Subirats 2003). It is also interesting to note the attention given to youths in variationist studies (Argenter et al 1998, Pradilla 1993), where questions of bilingualism are normally in the background. Apart from the more strictly academic research, there is also literature with a more performative, educative or mobilising intention such as the works by Larreula (1991), Solé (1989). And finally, we must not forget that in all public debates with the participation of what Larreula (2002) refers to as “language sufferers”, the subject of the linguistic practices of youths always has prime place (see Pujolar 2007, Prats et al 1990).

This proliferation of research projects and debates focused on the segment ranging from adolescence to the mid-twenties responds -to my understanding- to both ideological and practical reasons. In the first case, there is a certain sociological common sense that sees youths as the seed of future society and, therefore, as the segment where we can best evaluate the progress of various political projects: recuperation of the use of language, equality of the sexes, presence or absence of prejudice of all kinds, attitudes to nature, cultural differences, etc. From this point of view, Catalan Sociolinguistics have basically been concerned with evaluating whether the new generations learn Catalan, whether they use it, how they use it, and the role languages play in their life. This concern is based, naturally, on the project of “modernisation” of the Catalan linguistic community, a subject to be discussed later.

The second reason that explains the abundance of studies on youths is more prosaic. Youths are, for many reasons, more accessible than other groups. Normally, they can be easily accessed through educational institutions, or through the natural contacts of the researchers (often also young people themselves). They have time and (comparatively) few impediments or obstacles when subjected to interviews and answering questionnaires. Furthermore, unlike children, youths already have a considerably articulated and incipiently politicised discourse, thus enabling more valuable data to be obtained. We cannot complain that this field of research is poor or insufficient, as occurs with linguistic uses in many other fields; for example, in companies or at work, in Public Administration, the police, the financial world, the legal environment, among better-off classes, in tourism, on the Internet, etc. In any case, this is a question where professionals (those of us who give classes, research projects and direct theses on sociolinguistics) have to make an effort to seek a balance.

2. Theoretical displacements in research on youths and languages

As suggested above, research on youths and language in Catalan-speaking regions also includes a wider social debate, a debate that seeks the presence or absence of signs of linguistic and cultural “catalanisation” among youths. It is a question that clearly motivates and involves sociolinguists; but which also makes them (us) uncomfortable, at least those more closely associated with the academic world. This uneasiness is due to the fact that contemporary social sciences have undergone profound transformations, especially regarding theory, which question some of the suppositions of the debate and often lead to confusion and misunderstandings between sociolinguistic professionals and the other sectors involved. These “other sectors” would be those coming from political areas, cultural activists, teachers, technicians and linguistic advisors, writers, philologists with classic training, researchers in other fields, etc. They are, in fact, the sectors that usually participate in the cyclic debates on “the future of Catalan” or “the quality of the language”, in which we academic sociolinguists play a very marginal role, probably –I dare speculate- because we prefer it that way (see Pujolar 2007, Vallverdú 1998)). In any case, one of the purposes of this issue is precisely to aid in understanding the reason behind this separation, at least in regard to theoretical and epistemological questions which have important political implications.

In reality this divergence basically affects what is known as “identity” and what is known as “language” and, as a logical consequence, the relationship between one and the other. This is where modern Catalan nationalism has a starting point that is perfectly comparable to that of all modern nationalisms, and can be described as follows: 1) language would be the expression of a collective identity which in some way already comes predefined in individuals as a result of their socialisation (generally associated with the territory) and which connects them (or not) with certain “origins”; 2) language is also a living thing that precedes and is defined irrespective of its speakers, thus constituting an internally coherent system that must be protected from external influences; and therefore, 3) the “natural” expression of identity is to speak “one’s own” language; speaking another or speaking it with “interference” from others is a sign of abnormality that requires explanations and excuses. These are the basic assumptions, in spite of the many nuances and contradictions of many types, sometimes even very flagrant, such as the fact of considering a phenomenon such as language, the object of a long educational process within the school and of elaboration and purification by various professional groups, including linguists, as “natural”. Studies on “linguistic ideologies” broached by linguistic anthropologists (Bauman and Briggs 2003, Blommaert 1999, Kroskrity 2000, Schieffelin et al 1998) have recently begun to consider this subject with the added advantage of the comparison of very different contexts and models of society and languages from all five continents.

The work of Hobsbawm (1992), Grillo (1989) and many others have shown how the inherited way of handling language and associating it with identity and citizenship comes, to a great extent, from the process of the constitution of nation states which took place at the end of the 18th century and which is, therefore, a phenomenon strictly associated with modernity. I am not so much referring here to the custom of associating language with nations, nor the tendency begun in the 17th century of linguistically unifying kingdoms (e.g. France). I am rather speaking of the process of constitution and legitimation of the state as an expression of a “nation” comprised of citizens that share a language and a culture that differentiates them. This form of politicising language is modern in character and is projected onto various fields: a) policies of linguistic and cultural uniformity, especially in school; b) the creation and maintenance of monolingual public spaces and institutions that project the idea of nationality into all aspects of social life; c) the management and control of linguistic resources and uses on the basis of scientific criteria and through a body of experts (official or not), in conjunction with the procedures applied in other forms of population management (Foucault 1991).

a) Displacements on identities

All these assumptions are those presently questioned as a result of the consolidation of the discoursive and pragmatic conceptions of language in the social sciences, where the subject is more and more looked upon as a product of the “discourse”, the ”action” or the performative character of language. This point of view, often also presented as “post-structuralist”, conceives identity as an outcome and not as something pre-existent. This line often combines tendencies of varied origin and character. This means, within the framework of interactionist sociology of ethnomethodological inspiration (Garfinkel 1967, Goffman 1959), one speaks of identity as a product of social interaction, an idea sometimes associated with “constructivism,” a term more common in theories about learning. It is also necessary to mention the enormous impact of feminism, specially after the work by Butler (1990), which has spread the notion of identity as a performance. All these ideas, often formulated and interpreted in different ways, constitute the result of a far reaching change of paradigm in the social sciences, and a change that has had a very clear impact on sociolinguistics, especially anthropologic, qualitative or ethnographic sociolinguistics (terms not strictly interchangeable; but often used without distinction). This means that the approach suggested by Gumperz (1982) and interactional sociolinguistics in general inverts the terms of the language-identity equation and interprets linguistic use (including choice and switching languages) as a series of communicative strategies that speakers develop to demonstrate their links with various social groups. Le Page and Tabouret-Keller (1985), also studying youths, speak of the choice of language or linguistic variety as “acts of identity.” There are therefore dimensions that are additional to, or divergent from, “linguistic”, “ethnic” or “ethnolinguistic” identities. Scotton (1988) explores how language switching may be mobilised to indicate changes in the social distance or relationship between participants in terms of dichotomies such as rural-urban or official-informal. Later, the notion of “linguistic community” was also criticised and practically abandoned and then later reconstituted with concepts such as “communities of practice” (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1992, Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1992), which enable conceiving the existence of common spaces associated with social groups as part of a conception of diverse, disperse and flexible identities, in a continuous state of situational development. It was Eckert who applied the concept to groups of youths (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1995). As for studies that focus specifically on questions of identity among youths, mention must be made of the collection by Androtsopoulos and Georgakopoulou (2003), who present a series of recent studies showing this common ground in studies of the discourse of young people:

“It is by now a truism within discourse studies that identities are neither fixed nor categorical properties residing in people’s minds; instead, they are emergent in the sequentiality of discourse, particularly in interactional sites, where they are dynamically (re)created [...]. In this way, their constructions in any speech event are marked by indeterminacy and irreducible situational contingency: e.g. certain identity aspects may be made more salient or relevant than others at different points of an interaction; in similar vein, identities can be actively reconstructed, reframed, and, even more or less consciously, transgressed and reconstituted [...] by discourse participants to suit local interactional projects. (Androutsopoulos and Georgakopoulou 2003): 1)

This deconstruction of identities, made from the perspective of discourse analysts, pragmatists, conversation analysts and language anthropologists has proved to be very productive intellectually, even though it has some important limitations as discussed below (in sub-section c). In my opinion, one of the most important ideas developed in this field is that of the “co-construction” or the “co-articulation” of identities, that is, the fact that various aspects of social identity (class, gender, ethnic origin, age, etc.) are projected in social life in a combined way, reciprocally mediatised or interrelated (Ibid; Eckert and Mcconnell-Ginet 1999:185-201; Lury 1995). In the case of the identities of youths, this multidimensionality is evident, especially in view of the clear separation of gender and social class found among them (Martínez 2007), and for Catalan sociolinguistics it is an absolutely necessary reference point from the moment when the field is constituted precisely by the relations between the juvenile world and ethnolinguistic identity.

It is in this context that the hypotheses of modern Catalan nationalism regarding the definition of identity and language, as well as their interrelationship, become difficult to project into the field of research. In a certain way, this was the message transmitted by Boix (1993) with his extremely apt title, “Triar no es trair,” (Choosing is not betraying) a play on words that, had it originally been in English, would have made history. The youths that he observed define the language-identity relationship in accordance with the motivations and specific interests that give meaning to their everyday experience of bilingualism. This experience could be conditioned by discourses favouring Catalan or Spanish; but it was not determined by them. From this point of view, my own study (Pujolar 1997) did no more than delve deeper into the content of various repertoires of juvenile culture or relations between sexes which have just as much or more weight than ethnolinguistic identities and discourses.

b) Displacements on languages

A second line of debate that also primarily affects youths is the subject of the “quality of language”. This is also a debate which, in order to understand it, must be circumscribed in a much wider context than the Catalan one alone. The subject of the quality of language is not specific to the Catalan context nor of any similar context such as Quebec (Cajolet-Laganière et al, 2002). It is also the cause of debate in countries such as England and the United States, often related to debates on the quality of the educational system. More recently there has even been a considerable resurgence in Germany, France, Denmark and other countries especially in relation to the question of immigration (Aguilar 2005, Budach 2006, Johnson 2005). In general terms, the debates are media-driven and with a very thin academic basis, with no systematic and well financed research behind them and responding, to my understanding, to “impressions”, “intuitions,” opportunistic political interests and identity fears of various sectors (especially teachers, linguists, reporters, editors and politicians).

 This subject clearly affects the modern conception of language mentioned above and which is difficult to sustain from a sociolinguistic point of view. In this regard, interactional sociolinguistics has systematically taken apart many of the prejudices associated with contact phenomenon, such as so-called “interferences”, alternating languages (or code-switching) or mixing languages (or code-mixing). In the late 1980s and early 1990s a whole field of research was generated on these subjects and even proved the intentional, productive and creative character of bilingual practices, reflected in the Catalan context in the work of Boix (1990), Nussbaum (1990), Tusón (1990), and many others. These studies have been a strong counterpoint to the more purist and isolationist concept of languages, which often led to consider some bilingual speakers as inept, “semi-lingual” or lacking in one or another linguistic or cognitive aspect (Martin-Jones 1986, Zentella 1997).

Therefore, it is also difficult to expect that professional and methodological sociolinguists would take part in the general hubbub surrounding the subject of language quality. One should rather look into processes such as learning Catalan as a second language, issues of contrastive linguistics (1), the existence (or not) of structural simplifications à la Dorian (1981) or the processes of differentiation detected in other contexts (Labov 1982). It is equally important to evaluate the impact of large historical changes, such as the access of the poorer classes to education, the generalisation of university education and the role played by some changes in educational programs, especially at the level of secondary education. In any case, from my point of view, the crisis of the “quality of language” does not so much respond to a problem of certain social groups which do not learn the language, but more to a crisis of the language model enforced to date. This crisis will probably worsen with the advent of information and communication technologies, the emergence of cultural industries, and the multitude of phenomena associated with globalisation. One of the still little studied aspects of these new scenarios is the fact that they bring about a progressive privatisation and globalisation of culture, including linguistic resources and their management. This situation must forcibly not only affect linguistic minorities, but all linguistic uses of societies all over the world (Cazden et al. 1996, Pujolar 2007, Snyder 2002).





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