Language preference as a displaying of identity: code-switching and identity negotiation during family meals in Italian-American families

Pasquandrea, Sergio

Università per Stranieri di Perugia, Italy


Identity is a key concept in the study of the relationships between micro- and macro-dimensions of sociolinguistics, because it can be connected both with macro- (race, ethnicity, power) and micro- factors (context, negotiation, conversational structures, local actions).

This paper aims to examine the relationship between language alternation and identity negotiation during first-time encounters among Italian researchers and families of Italian immigrants in English-speaking countries.

The data I will analyze were collected during a research project that involved six Italian-Australian and four Italian-American families. The interactions were video-recorded in the family environment, during meals in which different generations of the same family interacted simultaneously. The methodology I use is based on conversation analysis, enriched with similar approaches such as interpretive socioling (Gumperz 1982a, 1982b) and symbolic interactionism (Goffman 1974).

I will focus on what Auer (1984) called “language negotiation sequences”, i.e. sequences where the base-code of the interaction is locally negotiated. This kind of sequences have been pointed out as privileged loci for the displaying of social and ethnic identities (Gafaranga 2001, Torras & Gafaranga 2002, Cashman 2005). I argue that, in such sequences, language preference can be regarded as a device for the co-construction of one’s own image of “italianity” and “ethnic membership”.

Thus, identity emerges an accomplishment that interactants achieve through a fine-grained work of negotiation and can vary according to changes in the conversational activities being performed (cfr. Antaki & Widdicombe 1998). The association between macro-level constructs, such as social and ethnic identities, and micro-level conversational structures (code-switching, language preference) is not to be taken for granted, but instead must be demonstrated to be relevant to the participants themselves through a close analysis of talk in context.


Antaki, C. & Widdicombe, S. (eds.) (1998), Identities in talk, London, Sage.

Auer, P. (1984), Bilingual Conversation, Amsterdam, John Benjamins.

Cashman, H. R. (2005), “Identities at play: language preference and group membership in bilingual talk in interaction”, in Li Wei (ed.), “Conversational Code-Switching”, special issue of Journal of Pragmatics, 37 (3), pp. 301-315.

Goffman, E. (1974), Frame Analysis, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Gumperz, J. J. (1982a), Discourse Strategies, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Gumperz, J. J. (ed.) (1982b), Language and Social Identity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Gafaranga, J. (2001), “Linguistic identities in talk-in-interaction: Order in bilingual conversation”, Journal of Pragmatics, 33, 1901-1925.

Torras, M.-C. & Gafaranga, J. (2002), “Social identities and language alternation in non-formal institutional bilingual talk: Trilingual service encounters in Barcelona”, Language in Society, 31, 527-548.

Session: Paper session
Code-Switching 3
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 10