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Crossing and Code-Switching: Language, Ethnicity, and Identity. (Or, ‘Excuse me, may I borrow your ethnicity, please?’). Ethnicity – Some Definitions. What is ethnicity? Not (always) race – can be culturally defined.

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crossing and code switching language ethnicity and identity

Crossing and Code-Switching: Language, Ethnicity, and Identity

(Or, ‘Excuse me, may I borrow your ethnicity, please?’)

ethnicity some definitions
Ethnicity – Some Definitions
  • What is ethnicity?
  • Not (always) race – can be culturally defined.
  • Though race can play a part, race = biologically defined, ethnicity = socially constructed. Similar to sex/gender distinction
  • From the Greek ethos: custom, trait.

ethnikas/ ethnicus: nation, group

  • So, group with similar/shared characteristics.
  • “…those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; this belief must be important for group formation; furthermore it does not matter whether an objective blood relationship exists.” (Weber, 1922)
  • An individual may strongly identify psychologically with an ethnic group, however, the strength and authenticity of the identity is contingent on the acceptance and acknowledgment of "ingroup" and "outgroup" members. (Suharso, 1999)
  • ‘Ethnic identity is usually contextual and situational because it derives from social negotiations where one declares an ethnic identity and then demonstrates acceptable and acknowledged ethnic group markers to others. One’s ethnic declaration often is open to the scrutiny of others who may validate or invalidate the declaration.’ (Trimble & Dickson, 2004)
language and ethnicity
Language and Ethnicity
  • ‘Language, politics and power intersect on a multitude of levels, and analysis of language in the context of ethnicity and race allows for this relationship to be made explicit.’ (Price, 2004)
  • On an individual level: language is ‘a powerful tool in the display of ethnic self’ (Bucholtz,1995:357)
  • On a group level: language ‘the very emblem of the existence of that community.’
  • Sometimes, people learn the language of their heritage in order to achieve ethnic authenticity through language’ (Bucholtz 1995:362)
  • People often assume a link between ethnicity (race?) and language, particularly in situations where two or three ethnic groups are polarised (e.g. ‘White’ / ‘Chinese’ / ‘Black’ in Taiwan)
  • ‘White’ = are expected to speak / be able to teach English (even if e.g. Spanish)
  • Often expected to be ‘genetically’ unable to understand Chinese (!)
  • ‘Black’ = expected not to speak English well enough to teach
  • Even sociolinguists sometimes make this one-to-one connection: e.g. Black British English, African-American Vernacular English
1.5 Discussing Ethnicity: The Visible/Invisible Barrier

1.E. Just got a message from Edward

2.A: Hmm Hmm (clears throat)

3.G: Oh really

4.E: Yeah he’s playing tonight


5.A: Edward

6.E: DJ

7.A: But he speaks (.) but he can’t speak Chinese (.) English right

8.E: He doesn’t really like to speak English[( )and he has to speak at these parties

9. G: [He’s Russian yeah=

10. E: He’s half Chinese half something [else

11. G: [no

12. A: But he can’t really speak English

13. D: ((from kitchen)) [Who

14. G: [No

15. E: [he always has big eyes

16. D: Who Edward

17. G: Edward yeah yeah yeah yeah

18. E: Yeah Edward (.) Edward (.) Edward the weirdo

19. D: Yeah he’s a fucking FRE:[AK man

20. A: [is he a good DJ

21. E He’s really nice though

22. D He’s a sweetheart like a child

23. E I guess so I guess he’s a good [DJ

24. A [His Mom’s Russian

25. G. (laughs) He gets off his head he does he does

26. A His Mom’s Russian his father’s Chinese

ethnicity and accent
Ethnicity and Accent
  • Rubin and Smith (1990)
  • Students were played a recording of a lecture. They were also shown a photograph of someone who was, they were told, the person giving the lecture. Though they all heard the same lecture, they were shown photographs of people with different ethnicities (Caucasian and Asian.) They were asked to rate the ‘strength’ of the lecturer’s accent.
  • When students were shown a picture of an Asian lecturer, the recording was rated as having a stronger accent than when a Caucasian teacher was shown.
the myth of the native speaker
The Myth of the ‘Native Speaker’
  • The idea of being a native speaker of a language and having it as your mother tongue tends to imply [that] a particular language is inherited, either through genetic endowment or through birth into the social group stereotypically associated with it [and] being a native speaker involves the comprehensive grasp of a language. Rampton (1995: 336-7)
  • Taiwan Minister of Education:
  • The Ministry Of Education (MOE) would only consider teachers whose native language is English to teach in elementary schools. Teachers from the Philippines and India are not native English speakers and their mother tongues are other languages. The MOE so far only considers hiring teachers from the US, Canada, the UK and Australia.
  • Reality: ‘brown people’ (South East Asians) clean floors. ‘White people’ teach English. Teachers of Asian ethnicity (e.g. Canadian-born Taiwanese) paid less than White Canadians. Black teachers find it harder to get jobs, as parents won’t pay.
  • ‘So my sister had a Black teacher. And my parents said to the school, ‘We’re paying the same money – why do we get a Black teacher?’
crossing i
Crossing I
  • But … ethnicity not always fixed, essentialised biological category
  • Ethnicity can be ‘declared’ or ‘performed’ through language use
  • Code-switching: The use of one’s own languages
  • Crossing: The use of someone else’s language
  • Crossing: ‘The use of a language which isn’t generally thought to ‘belong’ to the speaker’ (Rampton, 1998:291)
  • ‘The redefinition of reality’ (Rampton, 1998)
  • Ethnic identity thus ‘constructed’ in interaction

From Rampton,


crossing ii
Crossing II
  • That ethnicity can be ‘performed’ is important – Foucault’s notion of resistance
  • Not fixed category, but fluid: but, importantly, not completely free to take any ethnicity we like or ‘runaway deconstruction of identity.’
  • Must be ‘approved’ by others
  • Thus ‘crossing’ can be a risk to ‘face’
  • Hip-Hop culture: e.g. ‘White’ artists such as Eminem; ‘white’ fans; ‘Blackness’ doesn’t guarantee acceptance into hip-hop culture (e.g. Sir Trevor MacDonald)
  • Rampton notes that White and Panjabi youths avoid use of Creole in the company of Black peers, White and Black peers hardly use Stylised Asian English to target Panjabis. (1999:299)
  • In the last example - Panjabi youths did not generally approve of white youngsters expressing an interest in Bhangra
1.3 Eating your words: Food, Language and Culture

1. E: ( . )

2. A: Bu xiang yao

([I] don’t want [to])

3. E: You should cook some Chinese food

4. A: Bu hui

([I] can’t)

5. E: No ((rising tone))

6. A: Bu hui a

([I] can’t eh!)

(* * *)

7. D: A - get some spaghetti even a little bit

8. G: You should eat some carbohydrates love

9. D: She can’t eat she can’t eat Western food you know

10.G: ((pointing at spaghetti)) These are noodles (1) [ SHI [MIAN] A!

([they are[noodles] eh!


[(Do you want to eat some noodles?


Tomato noodles! Do you want some? Tomato noodles! Do you want some?)

  • Similar to crossing: adopting a gender or ethnic identity through language when one’s own is ambiguous
  • G: Have you ever experienced discrimination when looking for teaching jobs because you are black?
  • K: Yeah but, Gareth, I ain’t that black
  • Especially chat lines and the internet
is it coz i is black
Is it ‘coz I is black?
  • Andy Runey: Ok, that's enough.I can't do this. I can't do this.Ali G: Why not?Andy Runey: It's not going good.Ali G: Is it because I is black?Andy Runey: You're black?Ali G: For real.Andy Runey: Who's black?Ali G: Yo, I is.Andy Runey: No. I just can't do this. I don't have

time for this.Ali G: You has been rude to me since the first moment.Andy Runey: Sorry. I'm sorry.Ali G: Telling me I don't speak English.Andy Runey: Well, alright.Ali G: He's being rude. That's quite racialist to be honest.Andy Runey: It's racist, not racialist.Ali G: Whatever, it's racialist. Keep the cameras rolling because this is racialism that's going on right here. He's chucking me out because of the colour of me skin.

ali g
Ali G
  • Sacha Baron-Cohen – white, Jewish, Cambridge educated.
  • Ali G – use of stylised ‘Black’ English. Also use of hip-hop clothes etc.
  • Famously … ‘Is it ‘coz I is Black’
  • Ali G in Wales ...
  • Also … discussion of identity in comments turns into ‘war’
  • Ethnicity is a powerful marker of identity
  • While one cannot change one’s race (or with difficulty), ethnicity can be negotiated and constructed
  • One main way of doing this is through language
  • But not just free choice
  • Language and ethnicity are closely related
  • But not one-to-one relationship, diffuse and differentiated.