ESSENTIALIST VS. CONSTRUCTIVIST VIEWS ON LANGUAGE AND IDENTITY: AN EXAMPLE
In the introduction, I stated that the link between language and identity has been theorized in various disciplines following different research traditions. Among them, constructivist frameworks have become particularly popular in the last 15 years (e.g., Kanno, 2003; McKay & Wong, 1996; Norton, 1997; Peirce, 1995) partly due to a growing dissatisfaction among researchers with essentialist models in which variations in language use are explained through correlations with pre-established social categories (see Auer, 2005). Quite simply, essentialist models view identity in terms of pre-supposed, measurable categories (e.g., age, gender, social class, ethnicity) whereas constructivist frameworks recognize the fluidity of identities as they are constructed in social interaction.
To take an example, Social Network Analysis, which has been used widely by sociolinguists to investigate language shift and maintenance among people living in bilingual communities, assumes that the mother tongue is an integral part of collective ethnic identity, and that maintenance of that language across generations is a key factor in the maintenance of such identities. Because close- knit social networks tend to exert pressure on people’s language choice (Li & Milroy, 1995; Milroy, 1987), speakers with stronger ethnic ties are expected to make more use of the ethnic group’s language and less use of the majority language than those with weaker ethnic ties.
The predictions of Social Network Analysis are borne out in some studies but not in others. In Li’s (1994) study of Chinese immigrants in Tyneside, England, for example, participants who had a strong Chinese-based social network and interacted mainly with other Chinese people had Chinese- dominant language choice patterns. Likewise, those who had more nonChinese ties adopted bilingual or English-dominant language choice patterns. But in Lanza & Svendsen’s (2007) study of a multilingual Filipino community in Oslo, Norway, the participants who had a dense Filipino-based social network did not always use more Filipino with their children. Some chose to speak in Norwegian, while others spoke in Tagalog and English. In addition to these languages, some participants used other Filipino languages such as Cebuano, Bicolano, and Ilocano, as well as Spanish.
In discussing these results, Lanza & Svendsen (2007) recognize the limitations of an essentialist model such as Social Network Analysis in explaining the complex and multi-layered relationship between language choice and identity in a multilingual community. They contend that multilinguals have multiple identities and that while Social Network Analysis is a good predictive tool for assessing language choice in migrant communities, it should be supplemented with constructivist approaches to arrive at a fuller understanding of the communities in question. In the following, I discuss the constructivist views in more detail and consider their contributions to promoting a better understanding of the social contexts of language learning.