‘Language Is Your Dignity’: Migration, Linguistic Capital, and the Experience of Re/De-Valuation
the existence of an apparent language deficit in contexts of so-called linguistic super-diversity points, yet again, to the fact that some language skills are more equal than others. When it comes to bragging about linguistic diversity and the number of languages spoken in a place, we are happy to count ‘diverse populations;’ but when it comes to the economic opportunities of multilingualism, these same ‘diverse populations’ become invisible all of a sudden.
2. Theoretical Underpinnings
3. Research Context
4. Participants and Methods
5. Findings and Discussion
5.1. English—Language of Dreams Made and Dreams Shattered
English … English is the international language … in the world is most important… everybody must learn now […] when you speak English you can do everything… you have no problem.(David, interview)
I could still remember when I came to U.K.; I was spiritually full of energy as I arrived to the land of education and knowledge. But then I realized that things are very different here and I started to have many problems. These problems led to have some symptoms which was really annoying, as I felt I did not know English at all, when I wanted to express myself or ask for something. I could remember when I try to speak, it was not easy for me even to make a simple sentence, and I forgot about the grammar too. […] When I wanted to express myself I feel shy and afraid of saying something wrongly pronounced, because of the accent, the words limit, or making grammar mistakes.(Karam, LED)
You know… I was always dreaming of coming to England … the land of education … I want to see theatre shows and visit museums and galleries … and to learn more about this beloved language and culture … I adore English language… but look at me now, I haven’t been to a theatre or anything and I can’t even do a GCSE course because when I asked about it the man said to me ‘I’m sorry, you can’t do it because of your accent.’(Karam, interview)
5.2. The ‘Proper English’
I don’t like I can’t come to class at the moment … you have to come to class to learn the proper language … so now I can’t really make any progress… I mean you speak English at work but that’s different … it’s not proper … it’s important to learn all the grammar and the tenses … otherwise you can’t make any progress and move on.(Hakim, interview)
Maybe if you’re rich and you don’t need work you don’t need to speak proper English … but if you have to work you have… I mean… now at work I always speak English … but we don’t speak the proper English, we just speak our own English … to communicate … but our supervisors and managers speak better … so if you want better position you need to learn the proper English.(Hakim, interview)
5.3. Linguistic Hierarchies and the Experience of Multilingual Realities
I hate my language, it is of no use to me here, it is only useful in one small place in this world that is back home in my country, but nowhere else… I mean there are other languages that can be of use for you in London for example Italian or Arabic, you have to speak it if you want to work in an Italian or Arabic restaurant because nobody use English there… but my language is useless… and because it is so different from English it makes even harder for me to learn proper English…(Hakim, interview)
We use Deri in the kitchen in the back but you can’t use it in the front of the restaurant or outside—nobody wants to hear Deri here …(David, interview)
I come here help my aunt. After one week she say ‘Do you want to work? You can work as cleaner.’ So I start […] they are all Brazilian in the company, we all clean offices together, we all speak Portuguese.(Gabriela, interview)
When I come here I involve in the Latino community … it is the big mistake […] your community help you but … but also hold you back… when you there you feel confident and …. and strong… you do everything … you’re the real you … everybody know you and respect you …. but when … when I am outside I feel like in the middle of a big ocean.(Maria, interview)
our research paints a rich and dynamic picture of London as a hub of multilingual activities. [However behind] this richness and dynamism is a language hierarchy. […] Speakers of languages which are perceived as high status—either because of their current economic value or historical circumstances—experience London in a fundamentally different way to those who speak less prestigious languages.(cited in: Sachdev and Cartwright 2016, p. 30)
5.4. ‘Language Is Your Dignity’—The Affective Dimension of Devaluation
without the proper language you are put down so much … it really makes me angry… you are so devalued.(Hakim, interview)
Many times people don’t want understand … they decide not understand you… they don’t respect you.(Maria, interview)
He told me I can’t do it because of my accent … I felt so terrible … I went home and cried… and then a few days later I saw a TV program about how people help animals … they love them so much … and then they had this little bird and they tried to resuscitate it … when I saw how they cared about this bird I felt so despised … like nothing.(Karam, interview)
You feel disabled, it’s … it’s not only that you can’t speak … you… you can’t be yourself … you only … you only exist, you don’t really live.(John, interview)
5.5. Language Learning and Opportunities for ‘Just Talk’
I feel like … like …something in me … like ice … melted… before… before I am frozen but when we talk about this I forget everything… I just talk … with passion … and then all in class say ‘You are so different… we never see you like this’ […] I never feel like this before in class…I am different person… I am so happy…I just talk and don’t think…(Maria, interview)
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Wills et al. (2010) report on the remarkable growth of the number of Brazilians arriving in the U.K. over the last decade and a half, estimated at about 200,000, with most of them living in London and forming a very close-knit community. Most of them are in unskilled and low-paid jobs (mainly in cleaning or hotel and catering), markedly different from the occupations they had at home.
|Karam (male, 36, Syria, length of stay in the U.K.: 1.5 years)|
Karam was a successful businessman. The war in his country brought his business enterprise to an end and for him this also meant substantial financial loss. He subsequently decided to invest more in his cultural and linguistic capital and took up English Literature studies at Damascus University where he was very well respected by the academic staff and his fellow students. He was a member of the British Council library and was well acquainted with the staff at the British Council. He came to London as a refugee about one and a half years ago and described how he experiences himself as being at the lowest end of the social spectrum.
|Hakim (male, 29, Eritrea, length of stay in the U.K.: 2 years)|
Hakim came to London two years ago with the hope for a better life. Originally from a rural area in Eritrea, he managed to be upwardly mobile through studying hard and training as a nurse and midwife. However, his qualifications are not recognized in the U.K., which meant he had to start as a leaflet distributor for an Ethiopian restaurant, moving on to some factory work. Currently he is employed as a carer. He is hoping to be able to work in a hospital again and to forge a more desired position in the U.K.
|David (male, 46, Afghanistan, length of stay in the U.K.: 5 years)|
David had to interrupt his engineering studies when the Taliban closed all universities twelve years ago, and after some time working for a government department, he fled to Pakistan from where he came to London five years ago. He is currently working in a Pakistani owned chicken shop. He reflected on his experience, “In my country I had good life, good position. In my country you know study engineering is very good, like law or medicine is very good […] everyone respect me I had many opportunities, we had a decent life […] here is different, very different, here you have to start again from beginning, here you are low” (interview).
|John (male, 28, Iran, length of stay in the U.K.: 3 years)|
Attracted by the career opportunities the global city London provides, John came about three years ago as a highly skilled migrant with the hope of furthering his career as a software developer in one of the many transnational companies. However, quite unexpectedly he encountered difficulties with validating his degrees and qualifications and had to accept lower-skilled work as a sales assistant in Primark whilst trying to build up business contacts through freelance work. Only recently he secured a position in his profession which he is very pleased about, “now I feel like I can live again, before I only existed” (interview).
|Ana (female, 49, Poland, length of stay in the U.K.: 8 years)|
Ana came to London as an Eastern European migrant worker eight years ago with her children. Her husband had already been here for two years. Both had been driven to leave Poland by the economic situation which meant that, although they were both working full-time, they could not sustain a proper life for their family. Her limited knowledge of English meant that she had to accept lower-skilled work as a kitchen porter and cleaner. She is currently taking some graphic design courses offered by her local Polish community centre.
|Gabriela (female, 24, Brazil, length of stay in the U.K.: 6 years)|
Gabriela’s migratory trajectory was mediated by her aunt and the Brazilian community when she came six years ago. She was ‘neatly slotted’ into the low-skilled service sector in London, becoming one of the migrants who make the global city London run by providing cleaning, housekeeping, catering, and similar services, as she described, “I come here help my aunt. After one week she say ‘Do you want to work? You can work as cleaner.’ So I start […] they are all Brazilian in the company, we all clean offices together, we all speak Portuguese” (interview).
|Maria (female, 59, Ecuador, length of stay in the U.K.: 16 years)|
Maria came to London 16 years ago in order to secure better treatment for her sick son. Originally, she had only planned to stay for a few months, however, the health condition of her son required them to stay on. As a well-educated teacher from Ecuador, she had the possibility to secure a respected teaching position in an educational establishment within the Latino community. However, this isolated her from forging ties into the new society. Her experience in this regard is marked by great ambivalence. She is currently not working because of ill health, but is thinking about opening up her own bilingual nursery.
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Zschomler, S. ‘Language Is Your Dignity’: Migration, Linguistic Capital, and the Experience of Re/De-Valuation. Languages 2019, 4, 64. https://doi.org/10.3390/languages4030064
Zschomler S. ‘Language Is Your Dignity’: Migration, Linguistic Capital, and the Experience of Re/De-Valuation. Languages. 2019; 4(3):64. https://doi.org/10.3390/languages4030064Chicago/Turabian Style
Zschomler, Silke. 2019. "‘Language Is Your Dignity’: Migration, Linguistic Capital, and the Experience of Re/De-Valuation" Languages 4, no. 3: 64. https://doi.org/10.3390/languages4030064