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How are individual identities and community roles played out in language?

How individual identities and community roles played out in language?

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People often think of languages as if they were unified entities, such as “French” or “English” for example, but in fact languages contain within them many dimensions of diversity. There are different dialects, and different discourses, each of which reflects a range of heterogeneous and often conflicted relationships between different individuals and social groups (Norton, 2010).

A person’s identity is malleable and fragmented, and it can shift very rapidly (Iedema and Caldas-Coulthard, 2008). A person might swear loudly on a sportsground, but use very formal and polite language in a business meeting, for example. Some people speak one language with their parents, and another with their friends. The context and the person’s desire to project a particular image will influence the language that they use. This is because there are many unspoken linguistic rules that people choose to obey or resist, in order to construct various kinds of identity, or play various kinds of social role.

This ability of language to help perform different roles extends also to the way in which whole communities use language to construct a collective identity. Refugees and migrants, for example, often use their first language to help build a sense of home in their new setting. They may also make a great effort to learn the language of the host country or region, because this acts as a bridge to a new, bilingual identity which can flourish in the new context. Unconscious features such as accent, speech style and body language are often used to categorise whole communities, resulting in privileges for some groups and prejudices against other groups. This is due to the unequal power relationships that exist in society, (Wodak, 2012) rather than any inherent quality of the languages or discourses in question.


Iedema, R. and Caldas-Coulthard, C. R. (2008) Introduction: Identity trouble: critical discourse and contested identities. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-14.

Norton, B. (2010) Language and Identity. In N. H. Hornberger and S. L. McKay (Eds.), Sociolinguistics and Language Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, pp. 349-369.

Wodak, R. (2012) Language, power and identity. Language Teaching 45(2), pp. 215-233.