The Multilingual Subject: What Foreign Language Learners Say About Their Experience and Why It Matters (review)
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The Multilingual Subject: What Foreign Language Learners Say About Their Experience and Why It Matters. By Claire Kramsch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. vii + 231 pages. $33.95.

At a time when the multilingual experience has been amply documented first-hand by writers and scholars, reflected on by literary authors, and studied by applied linguists, Claire Kramsch makes a case for her monograph The Multilingual Subject by focusing on the subjectivities of becoming multilingual. Kramsch defines the “subject” as a “symbolic entity that is constituted and maintained through symbolic systems such as language” (17) and subjectivity as “our conscious or unconscious sense of self as mediated through symbolic forms” (18). She explores “subjective aspects of language acquisition” (5) in adolescent and young-adult language learners through retrospective language testimonies and memoirs, spoken and written data from language learners—including journals; oral interviews and transcriptions of classroom discourse; essays on what it means to be multilingual; and finally, online data from language students participating in chats, telecollaboration projects, and text messaging exchanges. Kramsch readily acknowledges the challenges of relying on and interpreting “modes of inquiry” that are not typically part of second language acquisition research: language memoirs contain “subjective truths,” oral interview data and essays are “co-constructed between writer and reader, interviewer and interviewee,” and an “influential, albeit invisible, presence” exists “behind the words” on the computer screen (5–6). Yet, it is precisely Kramsch’s triangulation of “alternative” data sources that lends both credibility and appeal to her book.

In true interdisciplinary fashion, Kramsch draws on theories and methodologies from disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, semiotics, literary criticism, applied linguistics, and linguistic anthropology. In the introduction, she explores language as symbolic power, perception and desire, subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and the subject position. Each of the six subsequent chapters addresses a different aspect of the multilingual subject (“The Signifying Self,” “The Embodied Self,” “The Subject-in-progress,” “The Multilingual Social Actor,” “The Multilingual Narrator,” and “The Virtual Self”) and illustrates through poignant first- and third-person essays, reflective language-learning journals, and transcriptions of classroom dialogue often turbulent language-learning experiences and struggles with identity,

Some of the data came from studies conducted by Kramsch herself. In Chapter Two, for example, dealing with the embodied self, Kramsch examines a small subset of survey data culled from 953 students learning fourteen different languages at UC-Berkeley. The language learners were asked to choose a phrase, expression, or metaphor [End Page 440] that best described their experience learning, speaking, and writing in a second or foreign language. Students’ choices reflected a range of subjective representations describing experiences that were physically painful, “intimate encounter[s] between learners and their bodies, between the body and its new mode of meaning-making,” aesthetic experiences, or a “ ‘homecoming’ of sorts” (60). Chapter Five (“The Multilingual Narrator”) analyzes autobiographical essays by multilingual students written after they had spent a semester discussing published writings of bi- or multilingual authors, such as Elias Canetti, Shirley Geoklin Lim, Franz Kafka, Abdelfattah Kilito, and Christine Brooke-Rose. The student essays, juxtaposed with these published texts, offer a unique glimpse into what it means to be multilingual and multicultural.

The seventh and final chapter (“Teaching the Multilingual Subject”) calls on educators to recognize the changing landscape of language education. Gone are the homogenous, monolingual, monocultural students of yesteryear. Today’s era of globalization, migration, and the Internet calls for an “ecologically oriented pedagogy that approaches language learning and language use not just as an instrumental activity for getting things done but as a subjective experience, linked to a speaker’s position in space and history, and to his or her struggle for the control of social power and cultural memory” (190). Kramsch’s argument is bolstered by the much-discussed 2007 report by the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages (http://www.mla.org/ flreport), which stresses translingual and transcultural competence as necessary goals of college and university foreign language majors. Although written both for foreign- and second-language teachers and researchers and “the growing number of college students interested in conceptualizing their experience of learning and using a foreign language” (22), the theory-heaviness of the...


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