chapter  1
16 Pages

Introduction: Language as a local practice

This book is about language, place and doing, about language as a form of action in a specific place and time. In talking of language as a local practice, I am seeking to address far wider concerns than a first reading of these terms might suggest. To talk of language as local practice might appear to invoke nothing more than the sociolinguistic truism that people use languages in particular contexts. This book, by contrast, approaches the issue from a different perspective: the idea that languages are systems of communication that are used by people in different contexts is challenged in favour of a view of language as a local practice whereby languages are a product of the deeply social and cultural activities in which people engage. The focus here is not therefore on language use in context, or the relations between language and particular places. Rather, this book questions the meanings of all these terms – language, local and practice – in conjunction: language is examined here in ways that go against some common assumptions about language systems; locality is explored in its complex manifestations as place; and practice is viewed in terms of mediated social activity. This opens up a range of ways of thinking about the interrelationships among language, place and doing. The notion of the local has become an increasingly significant focus across

the social sciences, to a large extent as a reaction to what has been seen as broad, ungrounded theorizing throughout much of the 20th century. Rather than talk about human nature, universal cognition, or language structure, the focus has shifted towards the local, the grounded, the particular. To talk of practices has also become common. We add the term to words such as language, literacy and discourse to turn these into things we do, rather than abstract entities: scholars of literacy are interested in literacy practices; research across fields of language studies asks what language practices people are engaged in. More broadly, there is a growing interest in the practices of everyday life. This is a move, similar to the orientation towards the local, to capture what actually happens in particular places and at particular times. It is a shift away from broad abstractions about language, discourse and society towards local activity as part of everyday life. To talk of language as a local practice, then, is about much more than language use (practice) in context (locality). To take the notion of locality seriously, rather than merely

juxtaposing it with the global, the universal or the abstract is to engage with ideas of place and space that in turn require us to examine time, movement and interaction. To think in terms of practices is to make social activity central, to ask how it is we do things as we do, how activities are established, regulated and changed. Practices are not just things we do, but rather bundles of activities that are the central organization of social life. Once we bring language into the picture, and consider language to be a

local practice, and therefore a central organizing activity of social life that is acted out in specific places, a number of common assumptions about language can no longer hold. The notion of language as a system is challenged in favour of a view of language as doing. A discussion of language in place will open up an understanding of the interactive nature of our physical environments, suggesting not so much that language happens in particular places, but rather that language use is part of a multifaceted interplay between humans and the world. What we do with language in a particular place is a result of our interpretation of that place; and the language practices we engage in reinforce that reading of place. What we do with language within different institutions – churches, schools, hospitals – for example, depends on our reading of these physical, institutional, social and cultural spaces. We may kneel and pray, stand and sing, direct classroom activity, write on the margins of a textbook, translate between patient and doctor, ask when a cut hand might get seen to, or spray-paint the back wall; and as we do so, we remake the language, and the space in which this happens. Viewing language as action and as part of how places are interpreted, how

the meaning of places is reinforced or changed, suggests that thinking about language and locality can no longer be contained with a notion of language in context.1 The notion of language as practice takes us away from a notion of language as a pre-given entity that may be used in a location and looks, by contrast, at language as part of diverse social activity. Social life is “policed by a range of such practices as negotiation practices, political practices, cooking practices, banking practices, recreation practices, religious practices, and educational practices” (Schatzki, 2002, p. 70). Practices are the key way in which everyday social activity is organized, and language practices, as one such set of practices, are a central part of daily social organization. This exploration of language as local practice takes us in a different direction from studies of the variability brought about in a pre-given language system through its contextual deployment, since it questions not only what we mean by language but also what we mean by context. To look at language as a practice is to view language as an activity rather than a structure, as something we do rather than a system we draw on, as a material part of social and cultural life rather than an abstract entity. As Bourdieu (1977) reminds us, practices are actions with a history, suggesting that when we think in terms of language practices, we need to account for both time and space, history and location. In this book, therefore, I will address the questions of language, locality

and practice as a way of moving forward in our understanding of how

language operates as an integrated social and spatial activity. I will deal in depth with each term – language, locality and practice – and in doing so will draw on different perspectives and domains, from practice theory to spatial theory, from graffiti to language ecology. The notions of time, place and locality will come under scrutiny here from a number of different directions. The idea of language spread, for example, will be questioned from a position that considers the possibility of multiple origins: language may not have spread and taken on local characteristics so much as being already local. The notion of creativity will be explored as a way of asking how it is that a particular version of language with a central core and divergent edges has come to hold sway. I will look at how language is related to time and space, and the doing of the everyday, and ask how we can understand repetition as the key to understanding difference. Questions of how we can understand human agency in relation to repeated language acts will be a key concern here, as will be the question as to how we can grasp the very locality of language. Issues of language diversity will be crucial, especially if we attempt to step away from a view of diversity in terms of enumerating languages, and instead focus on diversity of meaning. The ways in which languages can be understood multimodally, as working in different modes in different domains, will also be significant. All these themes come together when we take the notion of language as a local practice seriously. Let us take a simple example: writing a postcard (to which I shall return in

Chapter 7). When I sit down to write a postcard – a practice that in a world of text messages, Facebook, Twitter and Skype may already be located both in temporal and in spatial ways – I engage in a particular local language practice. It is a practice because it is a set of bundled activities that are repeated over time: I have done this before; I will likely do this again; I draw on the memories of postcards written and received, and on other textual threads linked to the place I am writing in and the people I am writing to. It is a language practice because language is central to the activity I am engaged in: it is about linking a place, a feeling, a connection through text that will travel and recreate places, feelings, connections differently elsewhere. And it is local because it is deeply connected to where I am writing, the surrounds, and the ways I may invoke those surrounds in these texts. A choice between languages does not necessarily make it more or less local: if I am in Paris and start one card ‘Chère Dominique’ and another ‘Yo Osc’, the first is not more local than the other. Locality has to do with space and place, the use of text on one side of a card (with probable links to an image on the other), sitting at this table, on this street, drinking this beer (un demi pression de Kanterbräu). It is a local language practice because of all of this, the sedimented use of language, the activity of writing, the multifaceted relations to place.