Third Place in the French classroom: A separate space for a new beginning?

As someone who is Italian, was raised in France, and has lived in the U.S. for ten years, and as the new mother of an American-born baby, I am fascinated by topics that explore the sometimes multiple identity crises that multilingual individuals face. What does it mean to be multilingual? What effect does it have on one’s sense of self? On one’s relationship with others? What is a mother tongue? Where does it start? Where does it end? These are all questions that spark debates that hit close to home for me as a student, but also as an instructor of foreign languages.

Today, I want to tackle the issue specifically from that perspective, and investigate the transcultural and translingual navigation that takes place among learners of a foreign language. Specifically, I intend to explore Third Place as it is experienced by students of French at UC Berkeley. I want to ask if they feel different when speaking French. How so? What does their French world look like? Feel like? And how do they shape and react to the experience of navigating among multiple languages, cultures, and personas?

I will organize my work in three parts. I will first give a brief overview of the theory behind the term “Third Place.” I will then present and discuss my project and my data, and I will end not by offering set-in-stone conclusions but rather by posing a series of questions to ponder.

Third Space, Third Place, Hybridity: Background
The terms Third Place and Third Space have been used across various fields, from semiotics to cultural studies, to psychoanalysis, to linguistics, and most recently, to education. Here I will focus on how it has been discussed in post-colonial studies, linguistics, and education, and I will highlight the various definitions it has been given. In post-colonial studies, the work of Homi Bhabha explores the notion of “Third Space” as “Hybridity,” as the idea that communication never engages only two participants, but is rather an act of meaning-making that takes place outside of these two participants’ consciousness. In other words, for Bhabha, Third Space makes speakers the recipients and the actors of a frame of work that extends well beyond their immediate environment. It places them in a historically contingent context, and it establishes an undeniable link between others’ words and an individual’s use of those words. So it makes agency both possible and inevitably tied to a broader web of communication, and Third Space is what represents this contradictory state of mind. It is important to note here that Bhabha does not necessarily see this contradiction as without hope. For Bhabha, this state of mind can be constructive and productive, but primarily in an abstract way.

Also important in the field of post-colonial studies is Jacques Derrida’s work. In The Monolingualistm of the Other (1998), he discusses a language of which the internalization is both inevitable and impossible for the natively multicultural and multilingual self. “The language called maternal is never purely natural, nor proper, nor inhabitable,” he writes (1998: 41). According to Derrida, a multilingual individual’s identity is “doomed” to exist in an undefinable space, in a space of in-between, in what he calls a “being nowhere.” It is always alien to the multiple monolingual spaces in which the identity exists. For Derrida, the language multilinguals speak and which constructs who they are is never truly theirs. It originates in the Other, is directed towards the Other, and always returns to the Other. Thus, identity becomes a space of conflict and tension, a tension that leads to one’s existence in an uncomfortable space of paradox.

Edward Said’s work follows similar lines. An American-Palestinian thinker, Said talks about multicultural identity as a series of “contradictions.” He examines the ways in which it is a complex construct that is always in the process of being edited, revised, and modified, because of its own contradictions and through its interactions with other “identities-in-construction.” For Said, identity is inextricably linked to culture, and both identity and culture are processes, as opposed to static, clearly definable entities. More importantly still, he describes the multicultural identity as fundamentally dislocated and decentered. Said locates it in an “interstitial space,” a space in which the multicultural and multilingual individual feels prisoner. He establishes a link between geographical, socio-cultural, and emotional space, connecting physical disorientation to a sense of ultimate non-belonging.

For these three post-colonialist thinkers, the multilingual identity therefore seems by and large “doomed” to exist in a space of conflict, and it is defined using metaphors that lock it into place in a primarily abstract world. Here I should mention a few words about the language I am using to define the term “identity.” I am basing my definition on a post-structuralist approach to the concept. So by “identity,” I don’t mean a static, set-in-stone and clearly definable concept. On the contrary, “identity” here means something that is dynamic and ever-changing. It refers to who we are, certainly, but also whom we will become. My definition echoes the work of post-structuralist Chris Weedon and her view on the relationship between language, identity, and subjectivity.

With this in mind, I want to move on to the ways in which Third Space has been discussed in the fields of linguistics and education. Much has been written about it, but I will focus primarily on Claire Kramsch’s work. In The multilingual subject (2009), Kramsch approaches the concept of Third Space from an angle that aims to go beyond an abstract discussion of identity, and she focuses on its immediate practical implications in the field of education. She writes:

The spatial metaphor of third place now seems too static… I propose reframing the notion of third place as symbolic competence, an ability that is both theoretical and practical. … A multilingual imagination opens up spaces of possibility not in abstract theories or in random flights of fancy, but in the particularity of day-to-day language practices, in, through, and across various languages. (Kramsch, 2009: 200-201)

Kramsch therefore uses the term “symbolic competence” to help us move away from the purely abstract and physically-embedded metaphor of the terms “Third Space” or “Third Place.” For Kramsch, “symbolic competence” becomes possibility, and a palpable possibility, one of which both strings and results can be tackled, seen, and experienced on a daily basis. Not only does she move the concept beyond its traditional dichotomy; she also places it in a context that is attainable, a context that directly affects and implicates students’ acts, practices, thoughts, and emotions. For Kramsch, Third Space is certainly a space of navigation and negotiation, but a navigation and negotiation that can be discussed in terms of reflections on the everyday.

Working definition
Based on these definitions and discussions, I want to offer my own tentative definition of Third Place, one on which I will rely for my project. I will define Third Place as:
–The dynamic and hybrid space that serves the navigation across the multiple languages, identities, and cultures an individual may have and experience.
–It is not static
–It is malleable
–It is a space of potential
–It is a cultural, linguistic, personal, and deeply emotional construct
The diagram below illustrates what I mean by Third Place. At the top is an individual’s first place, her “mother” or “native place. The number 2 represents the place she acquires when she learns a new language or discovers a new culture. The number 3 represents that space of in-between and navigation I want to investigate. It is the space within which an individual overlaps or mixes her two spaces together. Now since I have defined Third Place as dynamic, not static, and, most importantly, as a space of potential and possibilities, I want to open it up and make it more than just juxtaposition or intersection and give it movement. This is what the large arrow represents. Thus, the 3 is no longer a mere meeting point or end point; on the contrary, it is a stepping stone towards a whole new range of ideas, emotions, and constructs.

The Project
I started off my project by asking three questions. How does Berkeley make room for “Third Place” in its foreign language classrooms? How do students experience it? And are they aware of it? I structured my project in three phases. The first involved observing a French 3 classroom. From those observations, I put together a questionnaire (see Appendix). The second phase of my project involved interviewing students individually. The third phase, which I unfortunately did not accomplish because of time constraints, would have been to interview those same students together, after having let them ponder the questionnaire for a week or so. Although all of the responses I received were rich with material to analyze, here I will focus primarily on questions 5, 10, and 11 (Answers in full are provided on pp. 3-4 of the Appendix).

I interviewed four students. The first student to whom I spoke, S1, was female, Chinese, and spoke English and Mandarin. The second student, S2, was male, American, and spoke only English. The third student, S3, was male, Taiwanese, and spoke English and Taiwanese. The fourth student, S4, was male, Israeli and German, and spoke Hebrew, German, English, and Arabic. The interviews were conducted over two days, and each one lasted about a half hour.

Before I move forward, I want to make a few brief disclaimers. First, I realize that the pool of students whose answers I will analyze is very small and that my data therefore only reflects the opinions of a very small portion of the Berkeley student population. Secondly, I am also well aware that I went into this project with a specific goal in mind, and that the questionnaire that I put together is inevitably biased. The same is true of the factors that led me to choose the questions and answers on which to focus. My goal here was not to arrive at a purely objective truth. Rather, it was to plant the seed for a much larger academic endeavor.

Analysis
In looking at the students’ responses to the questionnaire, it became clear very early on that the identity they designed for themselves when they spoke French was a new identity, an identity that departed from their “native” one. I will talk about this new identity in terms of it being a symbolic identity of possibilities, a virtual identity of possibilities, and a self-constructed identity from an imagined aesthetic.

A symbolic identity
The new identity is symbolic in that it seems to exist as a new person with its own birth, its own growth, and its own pace of development. When answering question 5, S3 answered, “It is a whole new culture you’re entering when you speak French. It is a new world, with a new history, new priorities, new standards, new customs. And I am still relatively new to it, so I don’t feel as…mature?…in French as I do in English or my mother tongue for example. It is still all pretty new. … I just feel less…experienced when I speak French.” Similarly, when answering question 10, S4 responded, “You know, all of a sudden, for an hour a day, you’re not yourself anymore, but you’re Jacques or Tristan. It is like a new beginning.” Students not only talk about being “not themselves anymore;” they also bring up a difference in maturity between their two identities. For them, the new identity is younger and has had less exposure to the world in which it exists. It is like being born once again, but being aware of your own birth and the novelty of your new persona.

And with all this novelty, a whole new range of possibilities opens up. It is in that sense that this symbolic identity is also an identity of emancipation, freedom, and personal liberation. To question 5, S1 said, “And my parents don’t speak French, so it is like my own thing. … [Here], I can study what I want and [my parents] are not here to check up on me… So I feel more independent when I speak French. And I think I am less afraid to take risks, or to talk about personal things. Like in French 1 and 2, when we had to write papers about our lives and our past. I like doing that, and I feel like I can do that in French. I don’t feel like I am allowed to do that in Mandarin. Or in English.” The new identity that students acquire allows them to act in completely new – and sometimes even daring – ways. It gives them the emotional and psychological space to break away and emancipate themselves from certain aspects of their “native” world, things that they find restrictive. The new identity, in that sense, represents possibility and potential.

A virtual identity
The new identity also exists as a virtual identity, which is confined to a specific place, a specific time, and a specific community. In response to question 13, S2 said, “It’d be really weird for some of my friends from this summer to come visit and hang out with my Berkeley friends because I was just a different person this summer.” And S3 responded as follows to question 11: “[My summer in France] was a different world, with clear limitations. Cultural limitations and linguistic limitations. It was a bubble.” Throughout my interviews, I found that, just as we have the option of constructing a whole new identity for ourselves in environments like Facebook or Second Life, and the same way we sometimes feel uncomfortable extending this identity outside of the realm of those websites, the realms within which students’ new identities exist are very specific. Student 3 speaks of limitations, of boundaries, both cultural and linguistic, and student 2 describes physical and geographical limitations. In both cases, the environment within which the new identity exists seems to be isolated from the “native” one. It is controlled, and it breaks away from it. The new language is spoken during that daily hour of language class, or during that summer abroad, but neither outside nor beyond it.

And it is important to note that the new identity is also a virtual identity, in that it is voluntarily restricted to a specific space. S3 claimed, “I don’t think I would really talk to my classmates outside of class in French. Because my French self is the self that’s in the class. He’s not the self that attends UCB or that goes to parties.” Similarly, when answering question 11, S1 said, “There are certain things I don’t talk about in French. It is […] because of the context. It is like when you meet someone while you’re studying abroad. Sometimes it just doesn’t work if they come visit you at home once your time abroad is over. It is a different context, and you’re not living in the context that gave you things in common. You become a stranger to them. It is really uncomfortable!” The isolation of the new identity is purposeful and intentional. It stems from the discomfort that students think they would feel if their two worlds were to collide, or overlap. It is a virtuality of choice.

An identity from the imagination
The new identity is also an identity that stems from, originates in, and is driven by, the learner’s imagination. It is shaped and motivated by images of a new aesthetic. The students I interviewed all chose to learn French for specific reasons. For one it was her love of fashion, for another it was his love of food, or culture, or Paris… all elements or images that they had created in their mind of what “Frenchness” could be and mean. Of course, these images and this sense of “Frenchness” changes and evolves as students progress, but the ideals and ideas behind their initial interest in the language remain. Their endeavor is ideological.

Along similar lines, the new identity that learners take on is also one that they fashion in a way that makes them feel comfortable. To question 10, S2 said, “In FRE 1 and 2, the professor called me by my American name but she pronounced it with a French pronunciation… And it was so weird, if I ran into her outside of class, she would still call me that, even if we spoke English. It was like, for her, I had this identity that was Tom (pronounced the French way) and not the American Tom… And I guess it made a difference with the other students too, because it felt really weird to call them by their name and pronounce it in an American way. Like my friend Jennifer (Fr.) is still Jennifer (Fr.) and not Jennifer (US).” Just as the space within which the new identity exists is restricted, the community to which students choose to extend it is shaped by their level of comfort with it. Certain topics simply do not belong in the new identity’s world, because students feel younger in their new environment, and because they are simply not yet ready to build that bridge between their two worlds.

Working conclusions
The power of movement, potential, and possibility offered by the Third Place, the arrow that drives its hybrid and dynamic space, the “looking forward” mentality that it encaptures, is thus made evident through the new identity’s power of a conscious rebirth, the new identity’s power of personal emancipation, and the renewed sense of agency that the new identity offers learners. With their new personas, students choose to re-engage with the world through a different lens. They find in their new identity a novelty and a strength that, at least in one of their places, helps them flourish.

Questions that remain
Naturally, beyond these conclusions, many questions also remain. To begin with, we should ask ourselves whether the emergence of a new identity is a function of language learning or, in fact, a function of learning in general. By this, I mean to ask whether what leads students to discover and shape a new self is the result of their learning a language specifically, or whether they would have gone through the same experience had they been discovering/learning something other than a language.

I also want to ask why most students are reluctant to extend their new identity beyond a confined space. Are they afraid of the emotional consequences of the overlap of their multiple identities? Are they not yet ready to handle the discomfort that comes with mingling their multiple identities, and, therefore, their multiple worlds? Or is their reluctance due to a fear of loss of reference points? That is, are they afraid of what will happen once the clear-cut separation of their two identities is gone? Could it also be related to the young “age” of the new identity? Or is it a fear of different worlds’ “inhabitants’” reaction? By that I mean, are students afraid of how their friends and families will react when they discover the students’ “other” self? Are they afraid of rejection?

Another important question to raise is, what kind of situation would ease the bridging between students’ “old” and newfound identities? How could we promote it in our curricula and syllabi? And, consequently, what would help students confront the discomfort of this bridging with confidence? Again, what could we, as language instructors, do to help cultivate this Third Place?

The last question I want to raise is whether such bridging is necessarily desirable. Why is the mingling of students’ multiple identities a positive event? How does it benefit them? How does it benefit their environments? Is this desire purely ideological, or does it have educational, linguistic, and emotional benefits?

It is with these questions in mind that I want to conclude. I hope my project will be seen not as the endpoint of my research but rather as the beginning of a much larger endeavor, an endeavor in which I hope to engage the foreign language and multilingual education communities.

References
Bhabha, H. K. (1994). The location of culture. London: Routledge.
Derrida, J. (1998). Monolingualism of the Other. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Kramsch, C. (2009). The multilingual subject. New York: Oxford University Press.
Said, E. (1999). The paradox of identity. London: Routledge.
Soja, E. W. (1996). Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other real-and-imagined
places
. London: Blackwell.
Weedon, C. (1987). Feminist practice and poststructural theory. Oxford: Basil
Blackwell.

APPENDIX
Questionnaire
1. What nationality(ies) are you?
2. Where are you from?
3. What language(s) do you speak?
4. Why did you first begin to study French?
5. Do you feel like a different person when you speak French?
6. Do you feel like a different person when you write in French?
7. What language(s) do you think in when you are in French class? Are you aware of it?
8. What language(s) do you think in when you are doing your French homework? Watching a movie in French? Listening to music in French?
9. Do you dream or have you ever dreamed in French?
10. Have you ever had a French teacher who called you by a French name? If so, did it make a difference in the way you thought about yourself or in the language(s) you thought in? In the way you related to others in the class?
11. Do you find that you have the same relationship with your classmates when you speak to them in French than when you speak to them in English? How so?
12. What do you think of being allowed to go back and forth between languages in class? Does it bug you? Does it help you? Why? Do you feel that it disrupts your identity(ies)?
13. Do you feel like you have to choose between one language or the other? And one identity or the other?
14. What, in your eyes, does it mean to be a French speaker? Do you feel like one? Why? Why not?
15. Do you think it’s possible to feel like you belong (emotionally and otherwise) to more than one language at the same time? Why? Why not? What name would you give this “state of mind” / “state of being?”

French students’ focus responses

• What nationality(ies) are you?
Chinese, American, Taiwanese-American, Israeli-German

• Where are you from?
China, U.S., Taiwan, Israel & Germany

• What language(s) do you speak?
Mandarin, English, Taiwanese, Hebrew, German, Arabic

• Why did you first begin to study French?
For the fashion, the food, going abroad, cultural experience, love, philosophy

• Do you feel like a different person when you speak French?
S1: Yes. I feel more interesting. French is a cool language. It’s the language of fashion and Paris and good food. So when I am in French class, I feel like I can talk to those people. And my parents don’t speak French, so it’s like my own thing. My parents are very strict and before I came to UCB, they really followed closely my schoolwork. But now that I’m here, I can study what I want and they are not here to check up on me. So I feel more independent when I speak French. And I think I am less afraid to take risks, or to talk about personal things. Like in French 1 and 2, when we had to write papers about our lives and our past. I like doing that, and I feel like I can do that in French. I don’t feel like I am allowed to do that in Mandarin. Or in English.
S2: Oui! At first it was because I couldn’t really talk about more complicated things, more adult things in French. So I felt like I was a child in French. But now…hm…maybe it’s because I spent time in France? So I have like a different experience to go back to in the language. It’s like the Tom from LA doesn’t have the same experience as the Tom (pronounced the French way) from Paris. I mean, it’s always the same person obviously, but it’s a bit different, you know? It’s like it’s more fun to be the French Tom than the American one.
S3: Sure. It’s a whole new culture you’re entering when you speak French. It’s a new world, with a new history, new priorities, new standards, new customs. And I am still relatively new to it, so I don’t feel as…mature?…in French as I do in English or my mother tongue for example. It’s still all pretty new. Like when we discussed the PACS and marriage trends in France. I was unfamiliar with those and needed a textbook to help me discuss the issues, but in Taiwan, I am already familiar with all those trends and don’t need a textbook to discuss them. I just feel less…experienced when I speak French.
S4: Oh yeah. It’s a whole new language, which is a whole new culture, and so it’s a different me. When I speak German, I am not the same person as when I speak Hebrew. The same way that when I speak to you, I’m not really the same person as when I’m talking to my friends. It’s like a difference in relationship. My points of reference are different in the different languages. For example, most of the people I know in Germany are family members, and most of the people I spend time with in Germany are my cousins. So it’s almost as if my German self doesn’t know what it’s like to go to school there, or work there, or have a world outside of my family in German. But in English…I know how to go to school in English, how to go to parties in English, how to talk about current TV shows in English, etc. It’s like a cultural reference thing. I’ve been to France a few times, and I know a few people who live there, so I guess my French personality is the one of a 20 year-old who likes to go out and see shows etc.

• Have you ever had a French teacher who called you by a French name? If so, did it make a difference in the way you thought about yourself or in the language(s) you thought in? In the way you related to others in the class?
S1: None of my professors here have called me by a French name, but I really wish they had! It would be so much fun, to be able to pretend like you’re really French. It would also make the class more real. So that it doesn’t feel like we’re in French class at UCB, but more like it’s our little group that meets every day to speak French and learn French and learn about French culture. Like a little social group.
S2: In FRE 1 and 2, the professor called me by my American name but she pronounced it with a French pronunciation. I actually really liked it. It made me feel like I could be someone else. It also made me feel almost more French. And it was so weird, if I ran into her outside of class, she would still call me that, even if we spoke English. It was like, for her, I had this identity that was Tom (pronounced the French way) and not the American Tom. Yeah, I guess it was a different identity. And I guess it made a difference with the other students too, because it felt really weird to call them by their name and pronounce it in an American way. Like my friend Jennifer (Fr.) is still Jennifer (Fr.) and not Jennifer (US). It sort of keeps things exciting, too. You know?
S3: In high school my teacher gave us French names. I was Guillaume. I really liked it, and it definitely helped separate your everyday self from your French self. I liked the separation, yes. It was fun. I wouldn’t say I actually needed it though. I mean, I learned English without anyone giving me an English name, and I was very good at it. I say [my French and English selves] are two different selves, but in the end, they both grew up the same way. They have the same parents, they same birth date, the same history. It’s just a difference in who they interact with. But deep down, they have the same…CV!
S4: My high school teacher let us pick a French name for ourselves I loved it. It made it more exciting and real. It definitely made it easier to feel French and to become a French person. You know, all of a sudden, for an hour a day, you’re not yourself anymore, but you’re Jacques or Tristan. It’s like a new beginning, like a break. It’s refreshing. And really fun!

• Do you find that you have the same relationship with your classmates when you speak to them in French than when you speak to them in English? How so?
S1: When I’m in class, definitely. But not outside of class. There are certain things I don’t talk about in French. Like the relationship I have with the other French students is about what we discuss in class. It’s about French stuff. I can’t talk to them in French about UCB stuff, unless we’ve talked about it in class. It just feels strange. It’s also because of the context. It’s like when you meet someone while you’re studying abroad. Sometimes it just doesn’t work if they come visit you at home once your time abroad is over. It’s a different context, and you’re not living in the context that gave you things in common. You become a stranger to them. It’s really uncomfortable!
S2: I think that when we’re in class our relationships are maybe more fake because it’s a class, so there are things that we’re not gonna talk about, and so there are things that we never talk about in French.
S3: Well, I guess if I said that my French self is different from my English self, then my relationship with my classmates is different depending on what language I speak to them. Laughs No, but I guess it is, yes. I don’t think I would really talk to my classmates outside of class in French. Because my French self is the self that’s in the class. He’s not the self that attends UCB or that goes to parties. It [is] a different world, with clear limitations. Cultural limitations and linguistic limitations. It [is] a bubble.
S4: Definitely different relationships, but probably more because it’s all in class rather than outside of class. I think with those who are bilingual it’s the same relationship in French and English. Maybe not with the students who aren’t bilingual. Because it feels less authentic I guess. Not for me, but for them.

Further Reading
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Bhabha, H. K. (1994). The location of culture. London: Routledge.

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Derrida, J. (1998). Monolingualism of the Other. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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