The Political Economy of Language Use In Global Relationships: Some Useful Concepts


A picture from my recent marriage to my Korean wife

  • This essay is the result of a research project I conducted into the code-switching patterns between couples who share different first languages. My wife is Korean; she also speaks English and a bit of Japanese. I am American; I also speak Portuguese and a bit of Korean. Together, we speak a bit of lots of things.  I was always paying close attention to the use of language between us. But it wasn’t until I was introduced to Jan Bloomaert’s Sociolinguistics of Globalization that I realized I wanted to know a lot more.


This post intends to examine the intersection of bilingualism, biculturalism and globalization in the private and public lives of international romantic relationships. It is something of a cliché to mention the ever-globalizing world when prefacing research which appears to be due in part to the technological and educational effects of globalism. However, in addition to the political and demographic interest this subject holds for many people, researchers and lay-persons alike, this particular crossroads of language use provides an elusive opportunity to examine language acts which are by definition, private.

The Korean context of international marriage is an interesting setting due to historical governmental restrictions on the practice and the now open phenomena in the globalized. Little sociolinguistic research into the language use of these new couples has been completed as of yet (see Lim, 2010). This current study will begin first with laying the foundational theoretical work and tools used by previous researchers to examine language use in international couples. Then, using that framework as a guide, we will provide a methodology for examining a small case study of international couples in Korea.

Theoretical background and terms

  • Language Ideology and the Sociolinguistics of Globalization

Hymes (1967) is credited with laying out the foundational work between theoretical linguistics and what has come to be sociolinguistics. For Hymes, the study of language was more appropriately situated in the communicative practice of speakers and not in the traditional Saussurian concept of language itself as an object of study, divorced from the speakers. Since then, Susan Gal and Judith Irvine (1995) established the basic conceptual framework for which most research in the interaction of gender, power and language use. For Gal and Irvine (1995), language ideology is based in the concepts of indexicality, iconicity, recursion and erasure.

While most work in the area of sociolinguistics has followed the ideas established by Gal and Irvine, Jan Bloomaert (2010) has suggested that a paradigm shift is needed in the theory of sociolinguistics that more accurately accounts for the phenomena of globalization and its effect on the sociology of language. Bloomaert’s (2010) sociolinguistics establishes some key terms that both relate and contrast with Gal and Irvine (1995), including indexicality of truncated mobile resources which exist in polycentric localities and are used on different scales of directed speech.

This review will briefly contrast both Gal and Irvine’s (1995) language ideology and Bloomaert’s (2010) sociolinguistics of globalization before reviewing the literature related to international couple’s language use.

  • Indexicality and iconicity vs. idexicality and scales of reference

Indexicality refers to how certain linguistic features tend to be associated with, or point to, specific social groups of people. This can work at the level of the concept, such as “jeong” (정) which indexes what many Koreans may purport to be an untranslatable emotion specific to the Korean language. Using the concept indexes that the speaker has intimate knowledge of Korean culture. Using it without such knowledge (e.g. such as a westerner might do in Korea) may be met with annoyance precisely because their use of the concept does not index anything related to Korean culture. Indexicality can also work at the very basic levels of phonology, such as how many Korean-speakers of Englishs’ inability to produce English tense and lax vowels indexes them as non inner-circle speakers.

For Gal and Irvine (1995), this indexicality of language use to social groups creates iconic forms of those speakers and forms (p. 973). This iconicity is reinforced by language ideologies that link certain linguistic forms with certain groups and acts as though those two things are inherently established features. Early conceptions of this sort of language ideology are popularly known today as shibboleths and people often make both conscious and sub-conscious decisions about their speech and the speech of others based on these language signs of iconicity.


Biblical shibboleth in modern context

Bloomaert (2010) however, views indexicality in reference not only to groups, or language, but history as well. He describes the relationship of history to indexicality in terms of scales and suggests that the historical situatedness of a language act indexes more than the “horizontal” features (such as gender, age, race, socioeconmics) but also indexes vertically to the traditions, history and expectations of a place.

  • Recursivness vs polycentricity

For Gal and Irvine, Recursivness as a concept attempts to tease apart traditional forms of dichotomy in language ideology. Speakers and their language repertories are often categorized simply in terms such as “private” or “public”, “formal” or “informal”. Recursiveness suggests that each of these dichotomies can be imbedded within each other and that neither fully captures the communicative act without this embedding. Within an intimate relationship, conversation in a public space may be carved out and the speakers may create their own temporary private space within that public space. The “private” conversations in public restaurants, centered around private tables within a public building are examples of recursiveness. How speakers choose to establish the linguistic space around them suggests how they wish to present both their identities and the power they wish to show.


A typical Starbucks, or an excellent representation of recursive spacesThe organization of this public space creates various styles and sizes of private spaces.

Bloomaert (2010) understands the idea of recursiveness in his term polycentricity of global spaces. The “center” refers to an “evaluative authority” (p. 39) which can be any given person or collective. The “poly” of polycentricity suggests that at different levels, there are different centers, each with their own authority that has power over the communicative acts. At the highest, global level, we might have English and its central authority being the standard dialects of the United States or England. However, within the “center” there are multiple centers. And if there is a center, there is a periphery, or groups that are subject to the authority and power of the center. This recursive structure of power takes us beyond just the ideas of “private” and “public”, and allows us to see the authorities that may govern a speech act at a low periphery from a very detached global center.


This picture alone specifies a place in the world. Depending on how many you know, you might be part of the Global center (American: McDonalds, Starbucks), or a slightly off-center (English: Costa).

  • Erasure and Orders of indexicality

Finally, Gal and Irvine’s (1995) erasure refers to the silencing or ignoring of specific linguistic features, acts, or entire linguistic systems. At the individual level, erasure may refer to the explicit repression of specific linguistic features, such as a Korean English-Learner’s effort to naturalize their r-sounds, or a switch from a local dialect to a more prestigious one when a worker comes to Seoul. Importantly, erasure can be both a willful or forced act, depending on the context.

Bloomaert (2010) recognizes the importance of erasure, but for a globalized view, he utilizes it in reference to the local situation of a given linguistic act. For any given act of communication, the indexicals of the language, and their erasure, are ordered. At certain levels of discourse, in certain places such as the local center (e.g. An African American speaking standard forms in a majority white setting), some forms may be more acceptable than others, whereas the exact opposite may be true in the periphery (e.g. The same standard forms in a majority black setting). It is not just the socially weak who exclude certain types of communication. Within their own localities, communities of speakers may limit what is acceptable speech and the speech of a higher register or standard may not be as welcome.

Applying the sociolinguistics of Globalization: The political economy of language and identity in intermarriage language use research

Though researchers have been examining international relationships for some time now, Bloomaert’s sociolinguistics of globalization paradigm is as of yet, not common in this area of research.  Gal and Irvine’s (1995) language ideology has set the stage for most sociolinguistic research into international marriages. Such as Gal’s (1978) own work on Hungarian-German intermarriages and language shift, as well as sparking greater interest in the language use of international couples’ language use. This study intends to use the current research from Gal and Irvine’s (1995) perspective and interpret it together with this current study using Bloomaert’s (2010) sociolinguistics.

  • Political power and language choice

Walter’s (1996) study of English-speaking wives in Tunisia asked what “value” the varieties of language repertories (e.g. English, French, Standard Arabic or Tunisian Arabic) these wives had in with their partner, extended family or in public (p. 518).  Then, how these repertoires and the language attitudes that accompanied them, index broader social systems of power and how the unequal distribution of that power affected language use (p. 519). He found that among the wives in his study, the majority felt that their ability in various linguistic codes constituted real power that they used to manipulate and navigate relationships.  Additionally, the choice of using French as opposed to any variety of Arabic was a demonstrative and often explicit act of agency (p. 547).

English-speakers in Korea can probably relate. Being a native-speaker of English in Korea and many other asian countries generally gives those people the power to not learn Korean. This power is often overlooked by those who wield it, and even when it is acknowledged, it can lead to the erasure of non-English migrants in Korea. Indeed, while mostly white anglo-phones (perhaps symbolized most strongly by the American GI) take up a large portion of the political talk in Korea, Chinese and other southeast asian immigrants are by far the biggest migrant population. It is a mistake to think they enjoy the same linguistic power as an English-speaking westerner.

Similar to Walter’s (1996) study, Ingrid Piller (2008) found that acts of identity-formation and unequal power relationships were often navigated through the use of different language repertoires. In contrast with the Tunisian or Hungarian wives, the participants of Piller’s (2008) research were from western English-speaking countries and Germany. Most studies in this area find that bilingual couples tend to use the language of the community they live in, but Piller (2008) found that not necessarily to be the case for her participants (p. 214). Often the participant couples would continue to use the language or the variety of language that they used when they first met or were courting. Bartzen’s (2013) dissertational work found that many bilingual couples express linguistic intimacy primarily in one language, as one participant markedly said, “[my partner] fell in love with me in English” (p. 37).

  • Agency and Language use

Important for Piller (2008), and indeed much of the sociolinguistic exogamy research in modern, globalized societies, a native English speaker living in their partner’s home culture and language tends to enjoy greater-than-average prestige than the bilingual Hungarian women of Gal’s (1978) study, who after marrying a Germany speaker, tended to not use Hungarian at all in their homes. The presence of English in a globalized setting provides the native speaker of English extra political power in the home and also often in the broader society. Some participants in Piller’s (2008) research suggested that even though both partners spoke German well-enough, they would never use it together (p. 220). A parallel example of this also occurred with some of Walter’s (1996) participants.

Jackson (2008) however found that in her case study of an American business man living with his Japanese wife and family in Japan, the positive view of English from his wife and in general Japanese society, was perceived by the husband as associating him negatively with the English-Teaching industry. As such, the husband went to great lengths to not use English even in the home. The husband’s identity as “anything but an English teacher” (p. 348) and also as a Japanese-speaker were important acts of power and positioning both in his home towards his family and to the imagined listening “other” of Japanese society (Bloomaert, 2010).

In contrast to the linguistic situation of an American male migrating to Japan with his Japanese wife, Piller and Takahasi (2010) examined the experience of Filipina migrant workers in Japan. In response to the increased presence of women in traditional spaces of male labor, but the unequal response in the expectations of traditionally female reproductive work (i.e. housework or childcare), female migrant workers have found abundant work opportunities (p. 3). The power relationships of the socially-inferior Filipina migrant worker and their socially-prestigious, and often rich host family, is contrasted in language by the Filipina’s more complete English repertoire compared to their Japanese employers. Piller and Takahsi (2010) point out that the Filipina migrant workers tend to be well-educated and often feel humiliated by the work they are expected to do, but find a source of power and identity through their use of English and in many cases the non-expectation, or their refusal, to learn Japanese (p. 5).


It is through the lens of these concepts, the new globalized sociolinguistics, that I want to discuss something intimate to myself. Something deeply personal and even a little uncomfortable– my own multi-national and multilingual relationship with my wife. Despite my own feminist leanings and egalitarian views, I have the data that shows that the political economy (i.e. the power dynamics) of my own marriage are in ways more traditional.

Part 2 of this post will present qualitative data and analysis of conversations my wife and I have had. Using a conversational analysis approach, I examined own our language habits, focusing on the feature of code-switching as a frame to understand ourselves.


Bartzen, E. (2013)“He fell in love with me in English”: Language negotiation in the bilingual couple (Ph.D). University of Cape Town.

Blommaert, J. (2010)The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Campbell, L., & Grondona, V. (2010). Who speaks what to whom? Multilingualism and language choice in Misión La Paz. Lang. Soc.39(5), 617-646.

Gal, S. (1978). Peasant men can’t get wives: language change and sex roles in a bilingual community. Lang. Soc.7(01), 1-16.

Gal, S., & Irvine, J. (1995). The Boundaries of Languages and Disciplines: How Ideologies Construct Difference. Social Research62(4), 967-1001.

Hymes, D. (1967). The anthropology of communication. In F.E. Dance (Ed.), Human communication theory: Original essays. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Jackson, L. (2008). The political economy of language in intermarriage: Bilingual childrearing in Japan.立命館言語文化研究 立命館大学国際言語文化研究所20(1), 339-357.

Lim, T. (2010). Rethinking Belongingness in Korea: Transnational Migration, “Migrant Marriages” and the Politics of Multiculturalism. Pacific Affairs83(1), 51-71.

Piller, I. (2001). Linguistic intermarriage: language choice and negotiation of identity. In Pavlenko, A., A. Blackledge, I. Piller, & M. Teutsch-Dwyer. Eds. Multilingualism, Second Language Learning and Gender. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 199-230.

—. (2008). ‘I always wanted to marry a cowboy:’ bilingual couples, language and desire. In Karis, T.A. & K.D. Killian. Eds. Intercultural Couples: Exploring Diversity in Intimate Relationships. London: Routledge, 53-70.

 Piller, I. & K. Takahashi. (2010). At the intersection of gender, language and transnationalism. In Coupland, N. Ed. Handbook of Language and Globalization. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 540-554.

—. (2011). Language, Migration, and Human Rights. In Wodak, R., P. Kerswill & B. Johnstone. Eds. Handbook of Sociolinguistics. London: Sage, 573-587.

Walters, K. (1996). Gender, identity, and the political economy of language: Anglophone wives in Tunisia. Lang. Soc.25(04), 515-555.

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