Review of: Leigh Oakes. Language and National Identity. Comparing France and Sweden. Impact: Studies in Language and Society 13. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 2001. 305 pp.

Marc van Oostendorp

This review appeared in Language Problems and Language Planning, Summer 2003.

The relation between language and national identity has been a rather intimate one all over Europe for the past few hundred years. Furthermore it still plays a strong role in the current thinking of most Europeans about language and society, for example in discussions about the integration of immigrants, or about the unification of Europe.

Yet there are also clear differences between European countries in the way they perceive this relation between language and national identity. This warrants a comparative approach to the issue, and such is the approach that Leigh Oakes applies in his Language and National Identity. Oakes compares two nations that can be considered as extremes on several scales. France, on the one hand, is a country that is geographically in the centre of (Western) Europe and has been part of most European institutions from their inception; it has a history of strong linguistic pride connected to the French language. Sweden, on the other hand, is a country that is geographically at the periphery of Europe and did not enter the European Union before 1995; its official policy has never been to promote Swedish as an important international language.

Oakes compares the situations between the two nation-states in two different ways: by studying official policies and the public debates surrounding them, and by surveying the opinions of groups of teenagers on matters regarding language. The first part receives most attention. Chapters 1 (‘Introduction’), 2 (‘Basic concepts’), 3 (‘Theoretical framework’) and 4 (‘Language and national identity: A general perspective’) give a clear introduction to the notions Oakes considers relevant. One important distinction he makes is between different ‘arenas’ in which language and national identity can interact: the ‘national arena’ (where the national language competes with dialects, regional languages and languages of immigrants), the ‘European arena’ (where there is competition between the official languages of the member states, and in which English seems to become stronger and stronger) and the ‘global arena’ (in which English is even stronger than within European institutions). These arenas are discussed in chapters 5 through 7. Chapter 8 gives the results of a survey of French and Swedish teenagers. Chapter 9 provides a conclusion, including several suggestions for future research.

The most interesting parts are those on the official policies in the European and global arena. The framework the author uses, a combination of language attitude theory and social and ethnolinguistic identity theory, seems most suitable for these arenas. Oakes develops the interesting thought that Sweden and French are presently, and in spite of their differences, adhering to a form of ‘divergence in convergence’: retaining their national identity while at the same time converging toward other players in the international arena. An example of this is the ‘Swedish tradition’ of watching Donald Duck on television at Christmas Eve: a product of Americanized ‘global’ popular culture is used to create a national atmosphere. Another example, also from Sweden, is the pride Swedes take in their good command of the English language, if they compare themselves to other European peoples. Another interesting contribution to the discussion is Oakes’s insistence on the importance of non-linguistic symbols of national identity. If a nation can define its identity strongly in terms of these non-linguistic symbols, language may not be important, and vice versa.

The approach Oakes takes is less successful in the ‘national arena.’ One reason for this may be that the author focuses on the competition between the national language and the regional languages in this section, but this ‘competition’ at present seems less central in the definition of national identity in most countries of Europe than it may have been in the past. Most regional languages in France, for instance, seem nowadays to be moribund; an active state policy to promote the national language in favour of them would not probably be deemed necessary even by the most fervent nationalists. Immigrant languages such as Arabic and Turkish seem to have been much higher on the political agenda all over Europe in the past few years, but unfortunately these are not very broadly covered in Language and National Identity.

An innovating aspect of this book is that it combines a description of institutional policies with fieldwork study on language attitudes of groups of children who are participating in higher levels of secondary education. It turns out that Swedish and French children do indeed display some of the differences one would predict given the official policies of their respective countries, but on the other hand they sometimes converge. Both groups seem to display a more positive attitude towards minority languages than would perhaps be expected. Of course, it would be interesting to see how people in other age groups would have responded to the same questions (not just because the answers given might be partly ascribed to ‘age grading’ effects, as Oakes himself suggests, but also because it might be that the gap between official policy and public opinion is wider than we realize). This might be an interesting topic for future study.

All in all, Oakes’s study provides an important contribution to our understanding of what is going on in the relationship between language and national identity on the continent that virtually invented that relationship. It is certainly worth reading for anybody who is interested in the complex factors that shape the current international linguistic landscape.