A brief reflection on English, privilege, and power

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For all of my rich heritage – my parents come from a land which has 22 languages and more than 700 dialects, after all – I speak only one language, English, fluently. Arundathi Roy’s wonderful essay–What is the morally appropriate language in which to think and write? —has got me thinking about languages and their histories; the stories they tell and the maps they chart of our lives.

I’ve always called myself a native speaker of English, but my very first language was actually Malayalam – from Kerala in southern India, where I was born and spent the first two or so years of my life. I’d probably still be able to speak Malayalam if it hadn’t been immediately  subsumed by English when we returned to the UK (because my parents were told to speak to us only in English or they’d confuse us,  which was the thinking at the time). I’m wondering how different my relationships would have been with my home state, my extended family there–perhaps even my parents–if I’d been able to think and converse in their language.

I’m thinking that even after a decade in Egypt and an Egyptian husband, my Arabic could still sadly best be described as ‘functional’, and there’s so much I miss out on here  because of this (especially the humour, because the Egyptian sense of humour is priceless). I’m also thinking of the many layers of snobbery around English in Egypt (and probably many developing countries) – the casual mockery of those whose English is heavily accented; how, as a brown-skinned native English speaker, I can still confuse people; how I sat in a posh Cairo family club last week where every announcement was made in English, when everyone was speaking Arabic and I was probably the only native English speaker for miles.

And I think also of how different my life would have been if I weren’t a fluent English speaker – of how learning (good) English if you’re poor or disadvantaged or from a developing country can be an arduous, costly battle but is still vital to open doors. And how you can still distinguish the elite of almost any country by the quality of the English they speak (usually American- rather than British-tinged these days, sadly : )

The language(s) we speak, especially if you’re an immigrant/expat/third culture kid or in a developing country, carries so much political, socio-economic, cultural and also religious baggage – and sometimes so much privilege. It’s good to be reminded of this sometimes.

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32 thoughts on “A brief reflection on English, privilege, and power

    • It makes my heart happy to hear people discuss pride with reference to their native tongue, regardless of the amount of English or other languages they speak. As a teacher, I learned in a rather harsh way that students in my English class were not proud of the fact that their families speak in their native tongue at home. In fact, I remember one hispanic student in particular who denied that she spoke Spanish. I already knew she did, but of course, did not push the issue for the student’s sake. If she is struggling so desparately to fit in that she will deny her own heritage, I chose to tread cautiously and certainly not call her out.
      I often boast about students who learn English and believe it to be so important to be a speaker of more than one language. Apparently, however, in the US, students are trying so hard to “fit in” that they often deny their native language and even their heritage.

      • I agree with you both – it’s wonderful when people appreciate their own language but in some cases, you have to grow into that appreciation, because the value placed on fitting in and being able to speak English is so great. I hope your student realises that one day – I have a feeling she will when she’s older.

      • People trying so hard to fit in by denying their heritage and end up not fitting in anywhere because they sound to well spokeb to be part of their heritage and not polished enough to fit in with the culture they are fighting hard fit in…
        Dichotomies

      • You nailed it. Convincing a pubescent teen of anything beyond the ‘profile by peers’ they already believe would be a magical accomplishment – educators choose a battle or two…….maybe. Student behavior and dislikes or concerns are often hidden from parents and outside social circles. The hallways and classrooms become the theatrical holding tanks for these types of insecurities to flourish. As a result, the teacher may be compelled towards avoiding these topics to save the misunderstood notion which the student chooses to hide as a safety mechanism – and the cycle continues just the way you describe in your reply.

  1. That is such a shame that your parents were told to only speak english to you! I grew up in a bilingual family and although the development of both of those languages was a bit slower than normally children do, I still started school at the same time with everybody else and now I speak semi-fluently in 3 languages. I think languages are a valuable resource to everybody and especially to understand different cultures. Great post!

  2. Yes – thankfully I do – a lot of it. But it’s a particularly hard language to speak, I think, and my fellow Keralites are not shy of making fun of those who can’t..

    • Yes! And the plasticity of children’s brains in particular and that this is the best time for them to learn and absorb other languages – it’s so good that more people are aware of this now.

  3. my grandmother was not allowed to speak spanish in school in the small town of sequin, tx. The nuns would hit her hands with a ruler if she spoke in Spanish. TShe grew up think speaking her native language was a bad and something to be ashamd of, so she didn’t speak it to her children, and my parents were not able to speak it to me. I feel robbed of a large part of my culture.

    • That’s terribly sad, Brittany – so sorry – I think this used to happen a lot. I like to think that’s mostly changed now though as someone else said here, today you have kids who are ashamed to speak any language but English for other reasons – because it marks them as different. I think most of us appreciate the beauty and importance of knowing more than one language if you possibly can though.

  4. I was appalled to read of the examples of snobbery in your comments, as an uneducated and untravelled lay English man I was aware of the snobbery associated with English accents in the UK but did not realise how significant it was abroad.

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