Reflections on Feuer

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Avital Feuer: Who does this language belong to? (2008)[edit]

Feuer’s book presents an ethnographic qualitative study examining two conflicting camps in modern Hebrew language learning class at Canadian undergraduate level. The groups are defined (or “Othered”) by themselves and eachother as opposing sub-groups; “Canadians” and “Israelis”, even though there is notable diversity within both of the groups.

Feuer’s reasons for conducting the study are highly personal, which is highlighted by the introduction, which she calls “a search for place between languages”. Feuer describes feeling displaced within “her” social group since childhood and writes that she has been continually drifting between her two languages, two cultures, and two identities; Hebrew and English (p. 1). The study she presents is thus her personal narrative and analysis alongside other discourses concerning the Hebrew speech community. Feuer’s declares that her aim is to examine in-group community rifts, hierarchies and Othering as a result of language claim, ownership and identity formation. All this is done in a dialogic sociolinguistic perspective.

The three research questions are: 1. What unique framework of ethnic identity did students and teachers of Hebrew construct for themselves? 2. What was the place of Hebrew in participants’ ethnic identities? 3. How did participants’ ethnic identity frameworks affect classroom dynamics? (Feuer, 2008:3)

Chapter 2 with the title Multiple languages, multiple selves provides a theoretical outline of identity theories and sociolinguistics. Feuer makes connections to such classic scholars within sociolinguistics as Fishman (1972), Hymes (1977), Chomsky (1965) and Labov (1966), as well as Bourdieu (1994) In focus in Feuer’s study is the dialogical approach to second-language acquisition that emphasizes the importance of social interaction in language use (Johnson, 2004). This approach in turn is inspired and influenced by Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory (1981) and Bakhtin’s literary theory (1981). From discussing the dialogical perspective in the Hebrew class, Feuer moves on to present the current discourse on ethnic identity theories as well as discussions of Jewish identity. Connecting theories of language and identity, Feuer introduces the reader to concepts of ethnolinguistic identity, language ego, acculturation, integrativeness and code-switching, which all are relevant for her study (pp. 16-20).

Chapter 3 focuses on hybrid language and identity research. Here Feuer makes a division of the studies between “heritage” and “immigrant” language contexts, following a common treatment in the literature. With heritage languages one means that the language of the ethnic group or homeland is learned in diaspora by learners who were born in the diasporic country, in contrast to immigrant language that includes learners who immigrated to the current country of residence and use both languages, the native and the “new” language (p.21). Despite the many examples of heritage and immigrant language studies, Feuer concludes that there have been very few empirical studies concerning the relationship between (Jewish) ethnic identity formation and modern Hebrew language use and that the setting in which she has chosen to conduct her research is also unique in this sense. Moreover, the previous studies have often been quantitative in their character and have not examined, what Feuer calls the “complex value issues within sub-groups of the Jewish community, nor of their overlapping nature”, a feature that is very clearly seen in the present study. The studies have also not mentioned Hebrew proficiency as a form of identification (p. 27). After having built on her argument for the present study, Feuer moves on to describe her methodological approach in chapter 4.

As previously mentioned, the study at hand is one of very personal character. Deciding to study the ethnic and language group that she herself is a part of, Feuer makes a valuable investment that also includes some risks. Concluding that her view of the study was an insider’s and that she played an active part in the dialogic sociolinguistic relationships and interactions in the classroom, Feuer describes her approach as emic. An important notion here is the notion of reflexivity, critically analyzing oneself as part of the interaction. Chapter 4 continues with a description of qualitative methods, the setting (an advanced modern Hebrew class at one of Canada’s largest universities) and access (through a Hebrew professor Feuer already knew) (pp.31-33). When conducting the study, Feuer used different types of data collection, such as participant observation, group discussions and individual interviews. The class she followed included 15 undergraduate students between the ages of 19 and 26 and their professor, of which 10 and the professor participated in all parts of the study. The participants are presented in chapter 4 first in a table listing their names, backgrounds, stated ethnic identities and presentation topics (p. 37). Further on, Feuer makes an attempt to deepen this initial presentation with short descriptions of each of the participants, their backgrounds and incentives to learn Hebrew (pp. 51-54). Apart from these, Feuer also discusses transcription, the background in terms of the Hebrew class and community, its textbook and curriculum, as well as ethical issues and her own position in the study. She is notably thorough describing the details of conducting the study and discussing her own personal views and positioning in various different contexts, which is interesting, educating and rather unconventional.

Chapters 5 and 6 present some of the findings of the study, discussing convergence and divergence in the Hebrew class. An important notion Feuer makes is that the Hebrew classroom for the students participating in the study is as much an arena for socializing and enhancing their Jewish identities as it is for learning the language. This notion is connected to the fact that the classroom setting seemed to play an important role as a site of convergence among the students, who came from varying backgrounds. The excerpts presented here from the group and individual interviews are very explicit and show that the participants are very reflexive concerning their relationship with their languages and identities.

In chapter 5, Hebrew is being discussed from several converging points of view of Hebrew:

  • As in-group subgroup code (of Israeli emigrants and Jewish Canadians)
  • As an intrapersonal connector (self-expression, part of personal and family histories and a means of communicating with God)
  • As a connector to other groups (providing empathy and understanding of the Israeli community and minority language groups)
  • As an unifier of Jews (as the shared language of the Jewish people)

Through the themes identified above, Feuer concludes that the use of Hebrew filled several important functions in creating convergence for the participants of the study. Even though these findings were something that the participants would surely agree upon as unifying factors and as factors creating feeling of belonging, the class dynamics didn’t solely consist of constructive wholeness as there were different sub-groups easily found and defined both by the participants and the researcher. Feuer describes the element of distance as the “second half of the equation” addressing the research questions of the study (p. 75).

When it comes to divergence, three different themes could be identified:

  • Divergence from the worldwide non-Jewish population (due to historical reasons)
  • Divergence from national majority populations (no one of the participants identified themselves primarily as Canadian)
  • Hebrew and the Hebrew class as a cause of subgroup divisions (differentiating “Canadians” and “Israelis” in the class and further subgroupings)

Two important remarks, attached to convergence and divergence issues, are made concerning the nations of Israel and Canada. Due to the migration to Canada, Israel has mostly a symbolic value for the participants, even though the things it symbolizes vary a lot amongst the students, depending on their different experiences. Another interesting notion is that of Canada and its goal of creating a diverse society, emphasizing freedom and individual choice, which according to Bibby (1990) leads to isolation rather than integration (p. 85).

In chapter 7, Feuer summarizes her research questions together with her most important findings from the study. When it comes to the unique framework of ethnic identity that the participants constructed for themselves, Feuer concludes that the class projected strong social group identities of “Israelis” and “Canadians”, which were both self- and other-imposed and commonly agreed on (even if the groups in themselves were hardly homogeneous). Some of the more distinct features within the Israeli group were the modernist notion of equating language with nationality (and oral fluency as language proficiency), even though some of the Israelis doubted fully claiming their right to Israel and Hebrew due to their minority status as Russians. The Canadians, in turn, saw Jewishness in an ethnoreligious sense rather than nationally and expressed a more abstract connection to the state of Israel, seeing the nation as a symbol for Jewish ethnic and religious unity (p.102-103). A conclusion that Feuer makes concerning both of the groups is connected to Bibby’s notion above, stating that the Canadian multiculturalism and history makes the participants (and Feuer herself for that matter) struggle to find a sense of place. An inclination away from patriotism in Canada is suggested as another reason for the participants’ strong identification with Israel. Feuer discusses Cook’s description of Canada having a “quiet nationalism”, an idea that seems interesting to me to follow in my further studies, but in the Swedish context where I am due to conduct my PhD studies.

The second research question concerns the place of Hebrew in participants’ ethnic identities. Feuer’s conclusion is that language plays a key role in the participants’ identification processes. For the Israeli group, Hebrew is a membership card to true Israeli identity and a factor in determining membership. For the Canadians, Hebrew is just one element in a larger entity that becomes the Jewish identity (p. 105). Here the previously mentioned oral fluency (which the Israeli students possessed, even though their language often is described as “immature”) is highlighted as an obstacle for the Canadian students, preventing them to fully claim the language and the state of Israel as their own. From the oral fluency point of view, Hebrew thus became a social divider within the class and oral fluency a powerful sign of symbolic power, which is discussed under the heading of the third research question, classroom dynamics in relation to participants’ ethnic identity frameworks.

One of the most interesting notions on the classroom dynamics are the contradictory views that the professor and the other participants had concerning the different levels of fluency among the students. Aviva, the professor, saw the differences as a possibility for scaffolding, whereas none of the students, and certainly not the Canadians, saw the learning situation as ideal or the interactions with the orally more proficient Israeli students as potential raisers of their level of proficiency. Apart from scaffolding and Bourdieu’s (1994) symbolic power in form of oral fluency, also the concept of investment (Norton Pierce, 1995) when deciding to learn a language is discussed.

Feuer calls her most critical finding “the fluctuating ethnic minority group Jewish identification between a converging, united identity of solidarity within the group, and the divisive Othering, stereotyping and hierarchical exclusion” (p. 108). The reasons behind these variable senses of group and individual identities are then analyzed through two different applications, a broader view on the formation of subgroups within another minority groups and through historical contextual positioning, resulting to visual frameworks of some participants’ identities. Concerning sub-group differences and identifications, Feuer presents an interesting chain of Othering in relation to the Israelis of Russian descent. According to Feuer’s interpretation, two of the students, though “technically Jewish”, felt themselves “othered” as they hesitated to identify as Jews since the term for them carried a religious connotation which they did not share. This chain continued as they yet identified themselves as Israelis and further “othered” the Canadians in class (p. 119).

Feuer ends her description by considering the contributions to theory that her study has given, such as the emphasis on the dialogic model in analyzing the acquisition of identity through the negotiation of language, and suggesting practical implications to Hebrew classes in diaspora. One of the most important is the recognition of heterogeneity of the groups by all participants, students as well as educators and administrators, which hopefully will lead to new philosophies and pedagogies. Feuer concludes also that the theoretical and research implications of her study reach beyond the current setting to other ethnic minority groups and that further research regarding the internal diversity, oneness and community solidarity of minority groups as well as integration or assimilation with the majority community is needed. This final point I certainly agree on and hope to make a contribution in this aspect during the following years.

From my own point of view, it was interesting to attempt to try to find parallels concerning the context and setting of Feuer’s study and that of my study among the Sweden Finns. The differences in comparison to the Jewish/Hebrew-speaking community are many, but some similarities can also be found, as with any ethnic/linguistic minorities. A small example of an interesting fact to study can be found in what is described in chapter 4, where Feuer describes the background of the Hebrew community. I find the concept of “smatteracy” (Glinert 1993) fascinating: knowledge of a few words in a language becoming a symbolic marker of ethnic identity. The differences between the language of Sweden Finns and Hebrew of the Israelis in diaspora are evident; Finnish in Sweden or anywhere in the world other than Finland doesn’t have its own forum as clearly as Hebrew within religion, but it still could be interesting to find out in which terms Finnish in Sweden is a language in its own right or is there perhaps a “quasilectation” going on, turning Finnish in Sweden into a language used for cultural purposes rather than for open-ended communication. What is clear is that there is an ongoing struggle of keeping the language active in all domains of the Swedish society.

Some comments from Jenny R

As Annaliina acknowledges in her text Feuer has an emic and personal relation to her object of study. Annaliina writes that “Deciding to study the ethnic and language group that she herself is a part of, Feuer makes a valuable investment that also includes some risks” and I would like to comment on this issue. Reading Feuers book, I find it not only as a study on a language learning classroom, but also a journey of exploring her own identity which is in no way able to describe in a few words. The importance of reflexivity has been recognized in ethnographic works, but it is still disputed how this is to be communicated to the reader. If we admit that the ethnographer herself is the most important tool in her research, then we surely need to describe this “tool”. One way of dealing with this question is for the researcher to describe herself in terms of certain labels for example as a woman, Muslim, Finnish, German speaking, middle aged, divorced, single parent, nurse etc. However, if we believe that identities are fluid and dynamic in their character, the labels don’t tell us much about the researcher and how her understanding of herself and others understanding of her has been crucial to the study. Some years ago, I worked in and a Palestinian women center, which later became an object of study in my MA thesis. Although this was not an ethnographic study, the time I spent working in the organization before I later came back to make interviews and focus group meetings was crucial not only for getting access to the field, but for the information they could share with me and my understanding of it. When I first came to the office, I had been in Palestine for more or less two years and I didn’t see myself as unknowledgeable neither about the Palestinian society or the Palestinian – Israeli conflict. However, when my work in the organization started I was received by my co-workers as I had just arrived from the airport. At first this felt like a great disappointment to be, I didn’t see myself as an outsider, so why did they threat me like one! My strategy was to work hard and show my knowledge about both the issues we worked with but also through by involvement in other political activities. After weeks of working together, I finally felt that I was accepted as part of the team, but I was still an outsider, I was Swedish and my passport gave me a possibility of leaving when ever I wanted, a free pass through checkpoints, I didn’t speak Arabic fluently etc. When I came back to the organization for interviews and focus group meeting, of course I was still the Swedish girl, I was not one of them, but I was an outsider that had more insight in their everyday work and lives, which made them talk to me and share experiences that they thought that I could understand. I brought up this example to show, that in terms of reflexivity it is not the labels that are interesting, but the negotiations and dynamics of the identity of the researcher. I believe that it is this journey that every researcher makes in her field work, which should be communicated to the reader.

Therefore, in Feuers work it is not only interesting how she defined herself as belonging to the ethnic and language group that she studied, but what this belonging meant in relation to different persons in her field. The students that were defined as Russians, did they feel they belonged to the same group as Feuer and did she view them as legitimate members? If Feuer would have had Russian born parents would that have changed her relationships? Moreover, the fact that Feuer spoke Hebrew fluently, how did that affects the relationships with the non fluent speakers (Canadians)? Did they see Feuer as an extra teacher or just one of the Israelis? There are many questions to be asked in regard to the researcher as a tool in the field. Heath & Street defines four types of reflexivity; confessional, theoretical, interpersonal and deconstructive (2008:123) which can be useful in discussing this is further at the seminar.