Language as the topic and the instrument of research: Analysing social representations about language and identity of Russian-speaking students in Estonia

Liliane Meyer (LINGUA, Federal Office for Migration, Switzerland)

Speaking a specific language can make one being part of a group, a community - a nation in certain cases: language can be the constitutive part of identity. Language, however, can also be - in its function as means of communication - the main tool which allows constructing and sharing identity in and through discourse.

In this paper - based on the research and results of my master-thesis (see the reference below) - I intend to develop this double role that language can play in research. Language is, on the one hand, the topic of my research - as a cultural fact and essential part in the construction and representation of identity; on the other hand, it constitutes the main instrument of my research - as it is itself implicated in the construction and diffusion of knowledge and meaning through discourse.

In the theoretical and methodological part I would like to present a linguistic approach to the concept of social representation . Social representations are considered in various disciplines (see Jodelet, 1989; Moliner, 1996) as interpretation schemes shared within a group or society, part of a common knowledge which enables people to give a meaning to their environment; but at the same time they can also undergo inter-individual variation, they can be reshaped, re-explained and adapted when they do not seem to be appropriate any more. A linguistic and discursive approach to this concept gives us the opportunity to take into account the dynamic aspect of social representations, showing their elaboration and modification in and through discourse (Moore, 2001; Py, 2000, 2003).

In the empirical part, I will apply this theoretical and methodological tool to a specific context: Estonia has undergone many important changes since its re-independence 1991, so that existing social representations should need certain modifications or might even be basically questioned. This is in particular the case for the Russian-speaking population in Estonia who have been confronted with the fact of becoming suddenly a minority and losing any official status for their language. Through the discursive analysis of conversations about language and identity with some Russian speaking students of Tartu University I would like to show which representations of language and identity seem to be prevalent and how they are elaborated or - particularly interesting - modified in and through discourse.


Meyer Liliane

2004. - Langues et représentations sociales en Estonie. Quelques étudiantes russophones de l'Université de Tartu face aux enjeux linguistiques et identitaires - Neuchâtel: Institut d'ethnologie (Mémoire de licence). Dir. par Christian Ghasarian (Institut d'ethnologie) et Bernard Py (Institut de linguistique/Linguistique appliquée).

Further details, see

(English translation of the title: Language and social representations in Estonia. Some Russian speaking students of Tartu University confronted to issues of language and identity )

Jodelet Denise

1989. - "Représentations sociales: un domaine en expansion", in : JODELET Denise (dir.), Les représentations sociales , P. 47-78. - Paris: PUF.

Moliner Pascal

1996. - Images et représentations sociales. De la théorie des représentations à l'étude des images sociales . - Grenoble: PUG. - 275p.

Moore Danièle

2001. - "Introduction", in: MOORE Danièle (éd.), Les représentations des langues et de leur apprentissage: Références, modèles, données et méthodes , p. 9-24. - Paris: Didier.

Py Bernard

2000. - Représentations sociales et discours. Questions épistémologiques et méthodologiques". - Tranel (Neuchâtel) 32 (juin), p.5-20.

2003. - "Pour une approche linguistique des représentations sociales", à paraître in: Langages (Paris).