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Review of  Bilingual Couples Talk

Reviewer: Holly R. Cashman
Book Title: Bilingual Couples Talk
Book Author: Ingrid Piller
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 14.176

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Date: Wed, 15 Jan 2003 01:15:04 -0700
From: Holly Cashman
Subject: Ingrid Piller (2002) Bilingual Couples Talk

Piller, Ingrid (2002) Bilingual Couples Talk: The Discursive Construction
of Hybridity. Benjamins, xii+315pp, hardback ISBN 1-58811-287-X, $68.00,
Studies in Bilingualism 25.

Holly R. Cashman, Arizona State University

The monograph explores the language practices of 36 cross-cultural,
German/English bilingual couples from a sociolinguistic and discourse
analytic perspective.  The goal of the author is to shed light on how
bilingual, cross-cultural couples draw on their linguistic resources and
ideologies of language to perform individual and joint couple identities,
and to plan the linguistic future of their children.  The book is divided
into two main sections: chapters 1-4 lay the groundwork for the analysis,
describing data collection and participants; chapters 5-10 present and
discuss the findings. 

In Chapter 1, the author introduces the topic under consideration and
defines key concepts such as identity (which she treats as locally
constructed, something that speakers do, rather than something that
speakers are, following West & Fenstermaker 1995, and West & Zimmerman
1987 among others) and ideology (which she uses in the plural as a
synonym of discourses to refer to "any belief that mediates the
linguistic practices of the participants" p. 15).

In Chapter 2, the author reviews the literature on linguistic
intermarriage as it relates to language maintenance and shift.

In Chapter 3, the corpus is described in detail, as the author attempts
in this work to avoid the anecdotalism which has characterized much of
the research on couples talk.  The author's corpus comprises 18 hours and
44 minutes of taped dialogue and monologue (responses to a 'discussion
paper' composed of questions written by the research) from 36 bilingual
couples whose participation was solicited through newsletters and
listserves addressed to bilinguals in Germany and throughout Europe. 
Supplementary data includes questionnaires with demographic information,
letters from participants, and postings on a listserve for bilingual
families which the author monitored for one year.  The author's
understanding of the ideologies of bilingualism, bilingual parenting and
linguistic intermarriage were informed by popular publications such as
newspapers and newsmagazines addressed to the general public, as well as
newsletters and handbooks addressed to bilingual parents.

In Chapter 4, each couple is described with the "intention to provide a
sense of the 'whole people' who participated in the research" (p. 59). 
The brief sketch, including information culled from the conversations and
questionnaires, describes participants' ages, nationalies, linguistic and
ethnic backgrounds, country of residence (past, present and, in some
cases, future), employment, reported language practices, actual language
practices observed on tape, length of the relationship, existence and
ages of children, and how they became involved in the study (contact
researcher or contacted by researcher).  The chapter is a useful
reference, as is the couples index included after the references.

In Chapter 5, the author describes the language background of
participants, and how ideologies of language relate to participants'
first language (L1) claiming/ownership and evaluation of their second
language (L2) success/proficiency.  She finds that while 2/3 of
participants regard themselves as successful L2 learners and take a
positive view of their L2 proficiency, significant facework was involved
in the reporting of proficiency and lack of same in participants' L2. 
Additionally, she finds that 1/2 of her participants came from a language
background that could be considered mixed or hybrid, and that this
complexity led to a blurring of particpants' notions of L1/L2 and
conflicting reports of L1s in conversation and on questionnaires.

In Chapter 6, the author reports on participants' language choice,
especially within the relationship domain.  She found that choice of the
majority language (reported by 7 of 24 couples living in Germany) was
considered a default or natural choice not worthy of discussion or
explanation by participants, while couples' choice of the minority
language tended to trigger an explanation, which tended to relate to
either habit or compensation for the partner living away from his/her
home country.  The author also found that the 11 (of 36) couples who
described their language choice as mixed nevertheless internalized
negative evaluations of mixing which led them to justify their practice
in a variety of ways.  In this chapter the author also explores language
choice for the couples' disputes and language choice as a source of
conflict, as well as language choice outside the couple domain.

In Chapters 7 & 8, the author examines couples' joint identity.  In the
former, the author uses a discourse analytic approach to explore how
couples position themselves vis-a-vis the discourse of intermarriage as a
problem through the construction of similarity and the deconstruction of
difference.  In the latter, the author relies on a conversation analytic
approach to uncover how couples perform cross-cultural couplehood.

In Chapter 9, the author discusses the couples' "private language
planning", or their plans and strategies for raising their children
bilingually.  She finds that couples expressed a strong commitment to
raising their children bilingually, and that they drew on popularized
notions of childhood bilingualism research to inform their practices. 
She also finds that the couples' negative evaluation of language mixing
contributed to their very high expectations for their children's
proficiency (what Heller 2000 called "double monolingualism") and often
led to a sense of failure.

Finally, in Chapter 10, the various elements of the author's argument
come together as she relates her findings based on the corpus of
German/English bilingual couples to broader concepts of hybridity,
language desire and language status.  She ends the monograph by arguing
for a polyphonic sociolinguistics that "accepts the very complexity of
multiple and hybrid social identities and intersecting discourses as a
central characteristic of its subject matter, including an approach that
goes beyond description to include critique" (p. 265).

The book is well-written and accessible to a wide range of audiences.  It
is an important contribution to the study of bilingualism and of couples
talk specifically, but also, more generally, to the study of second
language acquisition and language and identity.  In this book, the author
manages to design a viable methodology without essentializing the
complexity of the sociolinguistic situation in which the couples live. 
One important way the author achieves this is through the inclusion of
the voices of the participants themselves, and another is through use of
an eclectic mix of data collection procedures and approaches to data
analysis.  However, one type of data not used by the researcher,
spontaneous conversation, would have enhanced the study, especially the
discussion of performing a joint couple identity.  Although the author
takes a conversation analytic approach to analyzing the couples' taped
dialogues (responses to 'discussion paper' or list of questions provided
by the author) in chapter 8, no analysis of spontaneous conversation
between the couples was included.  While the author explains the
difficulty of collecting this data, it would have been a worthwhile

Finally, the diversity of the participant couples is an asset to the
book; participants represent a diversity of ages and life stages, from
students to retirees, and a the length of participants' relationships
range from just a few years to over forty.  The study also includes one
same-sex couple.  However, a greater exploration of that diversity would
have enhanced the book.   

Holly R. Cashman is an assistant professor of Spanish linguistics in the Department of Languages and Literatures at Arizona State University.   Focusing on Spanish in the Southwestern United States, she is interested in code-switching in conversation, language maintenance and shift, media language, bilingual education, and minority language rights.   She is currently researching bilingual language practices in two second grade classrooms in a central Phoenix dual language immersion elementary school.      o