Positioning and negatiation of identities in a bilingual intimate communication

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2006

26 Seiten, Note: 1,0





Positioning and identity

Communication in bilingual couples and language choice





This paper presents two transcripts of conversations, conducted by a bilingual couple. Each transcript is in the language of one of the communicational partners. The frameworks of positioning and negotiation of identity will be employed, whereas the particular aspect of having each time one native and one non-native speaker will be taken into account. Therefore, language choice plays an important role as well as reasons for it. Furthermore, it will be looked at how both interlocutors construct their identity, by what means they position each other, and to what extent the fact of being native or non-native speaker influences the identity.


Communication is an important aspect of an intimate relationship. It becomes even more important when both partners do not have the same native language and one of both (or sometimes both when a lingua franca is used) has to express in a language s/he is not completely proficient in, and e.g. might not know all connotations of the meanings. The level of proficiency one has in a language is important for the identity that is established or, i.e. negotiated through communication.

The frame of this paper is based on the framework of positioning by Harré and Davies (1990) and it aims to apply ideas from this framework to data I gathered from an intimate bilingual conversation. Furthermore, an article by Piller (2000) about Language choice in bilingual, cross-cultural interpersonal communication, analyzing language choice in bilingual intimate conversations, specifically Anglo-German couples, and their reasons should be taken into consideration.

This article is organized as following: first, I will give an introduction into the notions of positioning, identity, negotiation of identity. It implies that identities “are constructed in and through discourse.” (Riley, 2006: 297). In a next step, I will take a closer look at the language choice in bilingual relationships, I will identify possible reasons for one language to be chosen, and compare these with my own experience being a German and having a relationship with an American. The last part consists in analyzing the transcript. I have two transcripts that I will take into consideration: one is in English, and the other one is in German.

I aim to examine how the language choice determines the positioning of each of the communication partners, and consequently, what impact does the fact of being a native or a non-native speaker has on the identity. Moreover, I will look at the distribution of the dominant role, and if the native speaker is in the more dominant position merely because s/he is the more proficient speaker, or if there are other factors determine each positions.

Positioning and identity

Positioning, as stated by Davies and Harré (1990), describes the process how individuals locate themselves or are located in a conversation. I call it a process because the position an individual takes or is given is not fixed, but emerges in the conversation the individual engages in. Moreover, people are continuously involved in this process of creating and positioning selves and others. Davies and Harré (1990) differ between two kinds of positioning: when an individual positions another, they call is interactive positioning, whereas when one individual positions oneself, it is labeled reflective positioning. For positioning somebody, it has to be taken into consideration that every individual has constraints that determine her/his capacity for positioning. One the one hand constraints result from an interpretation of the world, according to personal experiences. Therefore, one can position her/himself or the other one only in terms that are available to her/him. On the other hand, as Davies and Harré (1990) point out, each individual learns certain categories that include some and excludes others. These categories become meaningful for the individual through participating in discursive practices, and s/he positions her/himself into various categories. Thus, one sees her/himself member of certain groups, and develops a feeling of belongingness through these groups.

Consequently, her/his positioning determines the perspective s/he adapts to position the other, or i.e. once an individual has adopted a particular position as one’s own, s/he sees the world from this perspective.

Furthermore, positioning relates closely to identity, because identity is built through social interaction, thus, through the various discursive practices. This construction of identity is twofold, consisting in the speaker identity, which refers to the self-image that the speaker projects, and in the perceived identity, that is what the hearer perceives, including who she/he filters through expectations, values, social roles, etc. (Riley, 2006).

The interactional process of building an identity is often labeled with the notion of “negotiation of identity”. In this process, individuals attempt to evoke, assert, define, modify, challenge and/or support their own and others’ (desired) self-images (Ting-Toomey, 1999).

Nevertheless, there are different understandings of identity. Chambers (1995) claims that people speak according to what they are, i.e. they do not negotiate but express identities. This view, was however, criticized by several scholars (e.g. Johnstone, 1996; Tannen, 1993). They indicate that identities are constructed and negotiated through language, and that they cannot be directly linked to particular identities outside of the interactional context.

Positioning, compared to the concept of negotiation of identities, assume the individual to choose her/his identity in the process of reflective positioning. The notion of identity, instead, implies, that it is partly constructed by the perceived identity, or i.e. that there is an attempt of the interlocutor to position the self differently from what the self-projected image is.

Communication in bilingual couples and language choice

Nowadays, communication is an extremely important aspect in intimate relationships in Western post-industrial societies. Therefore, the mere fact that intercultural couples have a functioning relationship states that they have be successful communicators (Piller, 2000). The main difference between monolingual and bilingual couples is that the latter ones have to chose from two languages (or even three if a mixed code can be seen as a language) to communicate in. Piller (2000) examines in her article the language choice bilingual couples make, their reasons for the choice, and certain features of their communication. I will summarize some of her finding and compare with my own experience.

It is often stated that the use of one’s native language places one in a power position while the use of the second language requests to give up a certain amount of control. Piller agues that such a judgment is too simplistic, because sometimes the second language has become the preferred choice of expression. Nevertheless, whichever language is chosen, it is a major factor in the linguistic construction of cultural, and consequently, of the personal identity.

Siguan (1980) identifies certain factors that might influence the language choice. Piller (2000) based her research on these assumptions. The most powerful indicator, stated by Siguan (1980) and confirmed by Piller (2000), is the language of the community or the country where the couple live. I also speak English most of the time with my boyfriend, although he speaks German almost perfectly and would like to speak German more often. Living in the US, I am surrounded by English: I speak, read, write, and listen to English almost all the time in my daily life. Consequently, I am so fluent in English- which does not mean that I do not make any mistakes- that it always takes some effort for me to switch over to German.


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Positioning and negatiation of identities in a bilingual intimate communication
University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
Positioning in bilingual communication
ISBN (eBook)
462 KB
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Steffi Kny (Autor), 2006, Positioning and negatiation of identities in a bilingual intimate communication, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/68418


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