Critical applied linguist examines why some people choose to distance themselves from their native accents, dialects, and languages.
By Katherine Gianni
Is it possible to “forget” your first language? While linguists agree that losing one’s native language entirely is rare, language attrition, or the process of forgetting certain words, phrases, and grammatical structures can occur if not used regularly. But what about those who feel compelled to distance themselves not only from their native languages, but also accents and dialects? Dr. Ashley Moore, a critical applied linguist, has coined a new term for this phenomenon: linguistic dissociation. The concept stems largely from recent research he published in Applied Linguistics titled Linguistic dissociation: A general theory to explain the phenomenon of linguistic distancing behaviours. In this Q&A, he explains the factors that influence people to distance themselves from previously acquired linguistic resources, his research study, and the implications the findings have for educators.
Dr. Moore is an assistant professor in the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) Program in the Language & Literacy Education Department at BU Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. His research specialities include second language learning, identity, queer-affirming language education, and linguistic dissociation.
What is linguistic dissociation?
There are a large number of reports of diverse people distancing themselves from linguistic resources they have previously worked hard to acquire. Linguistic resources include things like accents, dialects, and even named languages like German. For example, some people distance themselves from accents they consider to be stigmatized and there are reports coming out of Ukraine of Russian-speaking Ukrainians distancing themselves from a language they now associate with their oppressors. Until now, such reports were mostly unconnected. Linguistic dissociation is a new theoretical concept I’ve developed to help us describe and understand the causes and nature of the general process that results in those distancing behaviors.
Linguistic dissociation describes the process through which people come to distance themselves from particular linguistic resources in their repertoire because those resources have become entangled with significant negative interpersonal experiences. The process has both social aspects–the negative interpersonal experiences–and psychological aspects–the entanglement of those experiences with the linguistic resources that encode them in the psyche of the individual.
What made you want to explore this phenomenon?
I’ve never experienced linguistic dissociation, so I first became aware of the phenomenon when I was doing a study that explored the links between a small group of Japanese gay men’s sexual identities and their motivations for learning English. To my surprise, three of the participants mentioned that they didn’t want to use Japanese when discussing their sexual identities, but it was very hard for them to explain exactly why they felt that way.
I let that idea percolate for over ten years, looking for theory that might help me understand their feelings toward their first language. During that time, I met plenty of other Japanese plurilinguals (people who use more than one named language to live their daily lives) who expressed similar feelings, not all of whom were gay men, but I couldn’t find any relevant theory.
How did you conduct your study? Who were the individuals or groups being observed?
It was a challenge! I wanted to focus on the group that originally sparked my interest in the phenomenon: Japanese-English late plurilinguals who have felt a compulsion to distance themselves from Japanese. “Late” here refers to the fact they acquired English after the age of 12, which is relatively late in terms of typical plurilingual development trajectories. But how do you find participants when the phenomenon you’re investigating doesn’t even have a name and you’re not even exactly sure what kind of phenomenon it is? The secret was to start out describing it loosely based on the evidence I had and gradually refine that description as I worked with the participants to generate and analyze their linguistic autobiographies.
In the end, I was able to recruit 17 Japanese-English late plurilinguals who had experienced what I later came to term first language dissociation. We used interviews, social media posts, diary entries, language use journals and linguistic comfort “graphs” to construct their linguistic autobiographies. They lived all over the world and their lives were so different, but I was able to use critical realist grounded theory method to theorize the common causes that explained the emergence of first language dissociation for all of them.
Were there any research findings that surprised you?
I was surprised by the role that language ideologies played as a causal factor. Language ideologies are the shared beliefs about a particular language and its users that circulate through social groups. For example, many of my participants talked about English being a direct language, one that they felt helped them to express themselves more authentically compared to Japanese, which they characterized as indirect. This ideological contrast doesn’t really hold up when we look at how people really use language and it can be traced back to problematic Orientalism that constructs Japanese people as indirect and enigmatic. Still, ideological contrasts like this are very widespread and they shaped the participants’ perceptions to the extent that they became one of the causes driving their dissociation from Japanese.
In your article, you note “linguistic dissociation also implies the possibility of linguistic reassociation.” Could you share the differences between the two and what this process looks like?
Sure! Some of my participants were still experiencing very strong first language dissociation when I interviewed them. They were avoiding other Japanese people or describing Japan and Japanese in very negative terms when they described their emotional relationship toward them. But others had found what I term “bridging opportunities” that allowed them to negotiate their relationship with Japanese, the people who use it and the places in which it is typically used. Bridging opportunities could be a person, an activity, a place, or so on that somehow resonated with them in a way that was symbolically opposite to the nature of the negative interpersonal experiences that first troubled their relationship to Japanese.
For example, one of the participants, Ikumi, first began to reassociate with Japanese after meeting a Polish boyfriend who was interested in Japanese history. Together, they visited historical places in Japan and Ikumi began to appreciate aspects of Japanese culture that she had previously dismissed as outdated and conservative. However, reassociation was rarely straightforward. For Ikumi, reassociation also meant buying into myths of Japanese exceptionalism; she now described Japan as “the most amazing country in the world,” which is worrying from a critical point of view. And she still seemed to struggle with the societal patriarchy and conservatism that caused her dissociation in the first place. The most harmonious reassociation seemed to be when participants were able to overcome binary thinking and appreciate the complex nuances of the social contexts they traversed.
What implications could this work have for educators?
First, my study showed that schools are one of the key places where people pick up language ideologies. Many language teachers are unknowingly propagating myths about languages and their speakers that are not based on linguistic or sociolinguistic facts. So we need to do a better job of training teachers; we need to expose and explore these myths and help them develop pedagogies that will help their students resist essentialist, binary thinking about languages and their cultures.
It also expands our understanding of what drives people to learn additional languages. Traditionally, we’ve understood this drive as the product of the attractive pull of the additional language and its users and cultures. My research shows that this drive might also be the product of existing linguistic resources that have now become undesired and now exert a push. We need to think carefully about how we address that undesire and unpack it sensitively and critically with such learners.
What are the next-steps for your research?
This is a new theory, so the next steps are to share it as widely and as accessibly as possible. That means lots of public scholarship like this! It’s been so exciting to see how the theory has resonated with people who have experienced some form of linguistic dissociation. For example, one of the reviewers of the Applied Linguistics article noted in their comments that my theory was useful to them in understanding their own wishes to avoid their first language which had come to connote the patriarchy and misogyny under which they had previously suffered. I hope other people will find it useful as a tool to better understand their experiences.