This section presents and discusses the findings along five key constituents or dimensions that emerged when the critical lens was applied as a hermeneutic device to interpret my participants’ life scripts: (Section 5.1
) English—language of dreams made and dreams shattered; (Section 5.2
) The ‘proper English’; (Section 5.3
) Linguistic hierarchies and the experience of multilingual realities; (Section 5.4
) ‘Language is your dignity’—the affective dimension of devaluation; (Section 5.5
) Language learning and opportunities for ‘just talk’.
5.1. English—Language of Dreams Made and Dreams Shattered
On a global scale, English is commonly perceived and experienced as the language of success. The world-wide spread of English, bound up with economic and political interests, has reinforced the high Q-factor (De Swaan 2001
) and symbolic power English possesses on a global scale (Pennycook 1997
). This reality was agreed upon unanimously and very uncritically by my participants. This became evident in statements such as, “It’s the international language everybody needs to know” (John, interview) or, “English is most important language of course” (Ana, interview). David noted:
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.
Here, David agrees with the importance of the English language promising a bright future as it denotes linguistic capital that he thinks can be of value everywhere. For him, like for all other participants, global English denotes a language without borders promising individual success. It is perceived as powerful in making dreams come true on a global scale. This assessment of English as linguistic capital that can be of value everywhere resonates with Seargeant and Erling’s
) observation that “this belief in global English is now mostly accepted as a ‘done deal’. Indeed, it is an attitude that is so entrenched in contemporary thinking and has become […] a commonsensical notion.” (p. 8).
However, the migratory experience often means that this commonsensical notion can begin to unravel as dreams suddenly undergo a reality check. Migrating to the U.K., where English as the national language dominates the linguistic marketplace, can lead to experiences of devaluation as previous success cannot always be validated and reproduced. This can be especially difficult for those who spoke English well relative to others in their country of origin or even studied for their degrees in English, since the change in relative position makes their experiences of devaluation all the more poignant. This is well-illustrated by Karam, whose knowledge of English during his time as a successful business entrepreneur in Syria made him a valued and much wanted business partner and subsequently allowed him to forge a position as a well-respected English language and literature student at his university, the British Council, and other cultural institutions in Syria. In his homeland, he had access to valued cultural capital, and as such, Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, BBC, and Queen’s English were mentioned by him frequently during his interview. He explained how his dreams got shattered when he came to London:
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.
During his interview he added:
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.’
As he explains here, through his migration, he came geographically closer to the valued linguistic/cultural capital but socially more distanced from it because of his migratory status and his inability to successfully validate his previously acquired linguistic capital. In London, where English as the national language is the ‘legitimate language’, my participants often experienced that their English is not seen as the right resource in the new field—‘the right English’. In the U.K., the same English when considered as ‘foreign’, ‘non-native, or ‘non-standard’ loses value and symbolic power and is considered as ‘lack’ or of lesser value in the linguistic market. This resonates well with Blommaert’s
) assertion that “articulate, multilingual individuals could become inarticulate and ‘language-less’ by moving from a space in which their linguistic resources were valued and recognized into one in which they didn’t count as valuable and understandable” (p. 2). As we can see in Karam’s example, such processes of ‘deskilling’ or ‘delanguaging’ are often accompanied by great anxiety and insecurity. To a certain extent, all my participants were caught up in these processes rather than experiencing language as a ‘value added skill’. As a result, they often felt locked up “into a shell of incompetence” (Park 2015, p. 70
) which had a profound impact on their feelings and emotions. The affective dimension will be discussed in more detail further below.
5.2. The ‘Proper English’
Alongside the ‘global English equals success’ mantra, my participants frequently referred to the need for ‘proper English’ replacing the global with a more local discourse. Although all of them spoke English well, they did not perceive their proficiency as sufficient, or ‘proper’. Thus, formal English language instruction (to learn ‘all the grammar and the tenses’ as well as the ‘right’ accent) played an important role for them in order to come closer to the sort of language that dominates their linguistic market. At times they voiced their frustration at not having been taught the ‘proper’ English in their countries of origin but a different English from what was required in the U.K. Hakim, who had to interrupt his language classes recently in order to attend to some unforeseen circumstances, pointed out:
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.
Altogether, they were well aware of the right linguistic capital as a tacit requirement particularly for success in the labour market. Puwar
) notes that although, “today different languages and accents from around the globe slide past and into each other on the streets of Western métropoles, […] in the higher echelons of social life, in professional occupations […] a specifically classed form of speaking […] what Bourdieu has incisively coined the ‘legitimate language’ is a requirement. It is ‘intrinsic to the somatic norm in the professions’ and a ‘key tacit requirement’” (p. 109). This became evident throughout and is well illustrated by the following statement:
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.
His statement clearly reflects the upward trajectory that my participants associated with acquiring more of the ‘proper’ English and the perception that different Englishes index different positions in the socio-economic hierarchy privileging certain people over others’. Those who are not privileged are most likely the ones who were earlier described by Piller as becoming ‘invisible’, or markedly limited in capitalizing on the value of their multilingual skills.
5.3. Linguistic Hierarchies and the Experience of Multilingual Realities
Besides their previously acquired English, my participants also brought their other linguistic repertoires with them. The native languages of the participants varied widely and, as such, their reports of how they experience the value of these languages in their lives demonstrated heterogeneity. What was evident throughout their accounts was that “[p]ower geometries of language are at work when linguistic forms travel–some travel well and others not so well” (Stroud and Prinsloo 2015, p. x
). Overall, the linguistic world they are immersed within was described as highly stratified and hierarchized, shedding a critical light on London’s multilingual reality.
Talking about his mother-tongue Tigrinya and describing linguistic hierarchies, Hakim stated emphatically:
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…
For him English is the internationally powerful language against which he assesses the value of his own, which he sees as useless in his new field. As such, he has negative feelings towards his own language, and his low perception of it is further tainted by the fact that he sees its linguistic difference to English as an additional obstacle in his pursuits of learning English. His observations reveal that different languages do not only index different levels of symbolic power but that there are complex power dynamics at play between them, which is experienced as either advantage or disadvantage, again reminding us that multilingualism is always mediated by context, particularly language status and speaker status (Heller 2007
David is also aware of the low value his home language, Deri, has in London. Working in a Pakistani owned chicken shop with all of his colleagues being from Pakistan or, like him, from Afghanistan, he said:
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 …
He clearly identifies the spatial constraints in which Deri has any potential use at all—the back of the chicken shop where he, a former engineering student and government employee in his native Afghanistan, is currently employed. This stands in stark contrast to his assertion of the borderless value of English discussed above. During his interview, he also mentioned how he uses Deri within his Afghan diaspora network. This raises the question of what role local diaspora communities and networks play in these experiences, and whether they are perceived positively or negatively, as possible opportunities or restrictions.
All of the study participants reported on the usefulness of their native language(s)—if they ascribed any use to it at all—solely within their families or co-ethnic communities, thus limiting their ‘strategic value’ tremendously. As Blackledge
) points out, “those who choose to go to a market other than that created by the dominant group in society may have little or no power to achieve economic mobility and success” (p. 348). Gabriela, for example, whose experiences were strongly mediated by her Brazilian aunt and the Brazilian community, found herself neatly slotted into and stuck in the spectrum of the migrant division of labour occupied by Brazilian’s cleaning offices1
. 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.
Her experience was mixed with ambivalent feelings as she was well aware of the fact that this to a certain extent isolates her from the wider society, which was not only the case in her accounts. Instead of being “able to move confidently between linguistic markets” (Blackledge 2001, p. 348
) my multilingual participants’ accounts were rather characterized by ambivalence, insecurity, and frustration. Maria reported:
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.
In summary, these findings show that while London is certainly one of the most multilingual places, multilingualism itself is hierarchized, and as such is experienced differently. This is reiterated by the authors of the London City Report for the LUCIDE (Languages in Urban Communities: Integration and Diversity for Europe) network as they conclude:
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.
When the places and spaces—the various social fields and linguistic markets—across which people and their linguistic repertoires move are filled with their own indexical orders, their significance and value are reassessed and recalibrated. For those involved in these processes, these can be highly emotional experiences, as “[w]hen people move, they do so with feeling and emotion” (Stroud and Prinsloo 2015, p. xi
5.4. ‘Language Is Your Dignity’—The Affective Dimension of Devaluation
Overall, the experiences discussed thus far were accompanied by a lot of frustration and negative emotions on the side of all the study participants. It is clear that the weight of their ‘lack’ or ‘deficiency’ is felt in their everyday realities and produces negative affects (e.g., of devaluation and lack of respect). This is further revealed by the following statements:
without the proper language you are put down so much … it really makes me angry… you are so devalued.
Many times people don’t want understand … they decide not understand you… they don’t respect you.
Going back to Karam’s account presented earlier further shows the importance of paying attention to the affective dimension inherent to the experience of linguistic devaluation. His experience of high levels of anxiety in everyday interactions in his new surroundings stands in stark contrast to his former embodied confidence and sense of entitlement due to his advanced knowledge of English in his country of origin. Referring to the instance when he was denied access to a GCSE course because of his accent, he notes:
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.
For John, these anxieties translated into feelings of merely existing instead of living:
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.
What is quite striking is the prevalent theme of devaluation and the choice of words to express the affective reactions to this, e.g., ‘lack of respect’, ‘makes you angry’, ‘feel terrible’, ‘despised’. For my participants, instances when they are positioned as language-less subjects equals being worth-less or value-less subjects, which is accompanied by strong emotional reactions and ‘ugly feelings’ (Ngai 2005
; Skeggs and Loveday 2012
). How powerful language is perceived to be in everyday processes is best summed up by the following statement: ‘Without the language you are nothing … language is your dignity’ (Maria, interview).
5.5. Language Learning and Opportunities for ‘Just Talk’
The data presented thus far, reiterates the importance of considering affect and emotion in second language learning settings in a much more profound way, especially as these are typically only conceived of as passive, unagentive psychological responses or states (Park 2015
). As mentioned earlier, this article intents to specifically consider the possibility for English language classrooms to be places where negative affects can be turned into action in the form of ‘just talk’, talk that produces fairness, kindness, and solidarity against experiences of symbolic violence, devaluation, and misrecognition (Skeggs and Loveday 2012
). As educational settings are crucial regarding symbolic violence and reproduction (Bourdieu 1977
; Bourdieu and Passeron 1990
), they also carry high potential to be or open up spaces for contestation and transformation. In second language learning settings, action could for example translate into confident talk or classroom participation with the prospect of empowerment even beyond the classroom walls, thus fostering change in the experience of everyday encounters and realities. Such instances were referred to by the study participants and were suggested as something the language classroom could capitalize more upon throughout. In particular, the wish for discussing things such as human rights, social justice, or their own frustrations, pains, anger, and resentments towards inequitable operations were salient themes and more emphasized by those who had been subjected to greater devaluation. Maria reported an experience that was of great importance for her. It happened about nine months before I interviewed her—sixteen years after she first came to live in London. Her class was talking about social justice and equitable education in one lesson which stirred up something in her and gave her courage to speak up:
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…
This poignant account of her experience is an example of the potential effect of turning negative affects that had made her frozen inside into action—confident and fluent classroom participation. During the interview, she went on to explain that this was very strongly felt by her and the whole class a little while later when they had the opportunity to discuss their lived realities in the light of proposed cuts to their language provision with the local MP (Member of Parliament). Again, she stood up and passionately spoke out against this perceived injustice together with her classmates—turning negative affects into action and thus exercising and experiencing agency. This can be seen as an example of how dimensions of affect and emotion constitute aspects through which individuals shape and construct social relations and an important way through which speakers can bring about transformations in the social structure (Park 2015