As the world becomes increasingly globalised, we observe a rising trend where individuals migrate for educational and economic opportunities. The prestige of being educated in a highly ranked university and the prospects of higher paying jobs are definitely important pull factors for both internal and international migration (Welch, 1970). When people move, they also transfer the use of their existing linguistic repertoire to their host country. However, what might have been effective at home might be interpreted differently when placed in different socioeconomic contexts. Hence, the relative value of linguistic repertoire one possesses and how mobile are one’s language skills in the world determines how a migrant interacts with a new community.
Consequently, this paper seeks to provide insight on how the relative value of linguistic resources affects one’s mobility and decisions in community interactions. Drawing on Blommaert’s study on the sociolinguistics of globalisation, this discussion will focus on how an individual’s linguistic repertoire is being used to one’s advantage within the community. It also highlights the changes which occur when one attempts to transfer the same linguistic repertoire as the shift to a place of varying cultural and linguistic ability. As Blommaert suggests, “placed resources are resources that are functional in one particular place but can become dysfunctional as soon as they are moved to other places” (Blommaert, 2003). Essentially, this essay seeks to expound on the changes of one’s linguistic repertoire and how it affects one’s interactions with new communities resulting from migration.
Linguistic repertoire refers to linguistic varieties acquired by an individual to different degrees of proficiency and for different uses (Crystal, 1990). The acquisition of linguistic repertoire thus extends not only to the procurement of different types of language codes like English and Hindi, but also the speech styles and genres within each language.
In light of this definition, this paper chooses to trace how one’s use of language repertoire might change in the context of internal migration and international migration. With this in mind, a migrant from India who experienced both types of migration was chosen. India boasts twenty-two official languages as per the Constitution of India, where English is determined as the secondary official language and is used as lingua franca throughout India. Within the context of this paper, the experiences of the migrant serve to provide personal insight on language mobility within the transmigrational arena.
Research methodology and background of interviewee
With this in mind, a fifty minute interview was carried out on 16th October 2012 to gather substantial data in order to provide a comparison between internal and international migration. The sole participant is Joshua Cherian, aged 24 who is currently pursuing a postgraduate education in Singapore. He was born and raised in Kerala, Southern India, after which he moved to Jamshedpur, Northern India to pursue a tertiary education before working in New Delhi. He was taught English at a young age and learnt Hindi during university, while his mother tongue is Malayalam.
During the interview, questions were asked ranging from the interviewee’s experiences of language acquisition and his experiences in India and Singapore to language policies in India. Utilising his personal insights on adapting to different communities and observing it through the concepts provided in Blommaert’s study, the relative value of linguistic repertoire consequently becomes more obvious not only from country to country but also within different areas of the community.
Language repertoire in internal migration
Within India, it is said to have a de-facto three plus minus one language policy. Those who neither speak the language of the state nor the two official languages, English and Hindi, now have to grapple with learning four languages in order to pass the school systems and secure jobs within the modern sector (Laitin. D, 1989). Consequently, many people who migrate in the pursuit of education or jobs find it necessary to expand their language repertoire in order to compete for the chance of upward socioeconomic mobility within India. Joshua notes that:
“There is a divide between the corporate world and industrial world, where managers and people in multinational companies speak in english, but those in manufacturing speak Hindi in work. In the north of India everyone speaks Hindi, so I had to learn Hindi. When I worked in Delhi, I spoke mostly Hindi in my workplace, because I am a manager of labourers and those who just passed tenth standard, they just need to make something so they don’t need English. People who do software need to interact with clients overseas, so it is important for them to speak English.”
Due the demands of his job, Joshua was required to expand his language repertoire to include fluent Hindi in order to communicate with his subordinates effectively. Although English could have sufficed in interacting with white-collar professionals, learning Hindi would have enabled Joshua to ensure a smooth running of operations that he was in charge with. As such, it is observed that migrants tend to expand their language repertoire within internal migration according to which languages are most functional within their community.
Furthermore, an expansion of linguistic repertoire also affects one’s interaction the community. As immigrants acquire proficiency in more languages, there is a tendency to broaden their participation in various communities within the area that they have settled in. This is especially evident in Joshua’s recount:
“In India you would have to know many languages in order to fit into different communities. University students will use English because it is prestigious. It shows you are well educated. Outside of the education system, everyone speaks their own dialect or their own state language. I used to hang out with many friends when I was studying in Jamshedpur who came from all over India. I also managed to become my student governing body’s president, so speaking the many languages helped me reach out to a lot of people.”
Even though migrants who migrate within their home country experience a new environment, there are common cultural familiarities that they can relate to by being in the same country. Naturally, this allows them to assimilate into the communities easily since they already share similar cultural and national identities. Rather, this pre-existing factor enables immigrants like Joshua to interact with different groups of people. Such a preference is also extremely beneficial to an individual within a new community as they are able to called upon a large network of acquaintances should they need help in the future. Hence, the broadening of one’s interaction with many communities would be positively correlated to the acquisition of language repertoire because both serve the same purpose of helping the migrant assimilate well into the new environment they are in.
Language Repertoire in International Migration
In contrast to internal migration, one’s use of language repertoire might decrease across different geographical spaces. It is noted that international migration denotes a shift to a foreign culture in which the values placed upon certain languages is different from one’s original country. As such, many migrants would utilise a language within their repertoire that is widely used in the world. Joshua relates his experience moving from India to Singapore:
“When I first arrived in Singapore, everything was easy for me to get used to because I was already proficient in English. Even if I needed help, I could just approach anyone and they would reply me in English. I don’t even Hindi anymore because the friends and people I meet with speak only in English. Perhaps it is because there are so many races here so communication needs to be in a common language. Although I have friends from India here, they never speak in their mother tongue! Everyone would rather speak in English than Hindi!
Despite Joshua’s extensive language repertoire, he only speaks in English in Singapore, thereby showing a decrease in language repertoire employed in daily life. In most cases of international migration, migrants often move from the ‘periphery’ to the ‘core’ of the world system. As one attempts to transfer one’s language repertoire from one country to another, the languages employed more frequently within the core global system would be more mobile compared to other languages.
In particular, because Singapore is a multi-racial community, it requires English as a lingua franca in order to achieve cohesiveness and efficiency. Consequently, rather than expanding one’s linguistic repertoire to gain access to every community, a migrant in Singapore need only focus on speaking proficient English, which subsequently narrows his language repertoire within the host country.
Parallel to one’s decrease in language repertoire, it is observed that migrants narrow their participation to a few communities that they are comfortable with. While migrants who migrate internally tend to broaden their participation in a wide array of communities, people who migrate internationally prefer to focus their efforts in interacting with a particular community where they feel most comfortable with. Joshua, expresses that:
“ I like to be in a place where I can interact with people well. When I came to Singapore, everybody spoke “Singlish”. It was especially hard for me to understand the jokes of my Singaporean friends. Thats why I wanted to be in a Christian group, so I went around to look for churches and even joined the varsity christian fellowship. Then I found a church cell group to be in and we could talk about common things, at least everyone there understands what I am going through when I talk about my struggles and life. I don’t meet with the Indian community much because everyone here speaks English anyway and I am more comfortable speaking in English, so when I talk about God and faith, I don’t get any puzzled looks when I am with church people”
For most immigrants, being in a foreign community could be unsettling because there exists stark differences in culture that they might not understand. In Joshua’s case, not being able to understand Singlish hindered his active participation in various communities, especially in understanding humour within the sociocultural context of Singaporean society. As such, by participating in communities with specific shared beliefs that the migrant can identify with, it could be easier for him to assimilate into a new environment. Communities with shared beliefs also tend to share a similar use of register in their daily speech.
Drawing on Joshua’s case of finding a christian community, a christian setting could be more comfortable for him because he understands the semantics of words such as “communion” and “faith” used frequently in that community. Additionally, by narrowing one’s participation to few communities, individuals would have more time to spend more effort on forging closer relationships within a particular communities. This in turn could be more beneficial to the migrant as this niche area of society provides a source of emotional support for the migrant in order to cope with the anxiety of being away from home.
What Joshua has experienced demonstrates the constant change of the value of language resources as he shifts between places in migration. This relative value of one’s linguistic resources is largely due to cultural and socioeconomic factors that have shaped the community to place emphasis on certain languages and speech styles. As such, an immigrant’s increase or decrease language repertoire is largely affected by the placed importance of certain languages within their host communities.
In conclusion, this paper has asserts that language mobility is profoundly affected by the changing values of linguistic resources which vary from place to place, especially when there is a shift of resources from the periphery to the core of the world system. Whether one participates in a wide number of communities or chooses to focus their efforts in a single community depends on a change in one’s use of his language repertoire.
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