English, Tamil: Linguistic Capital (1 of 3)

The notion of ‘linguistic capital’ is related to Bourdieu’s view of ‘cultural capital.’ In terms of education and schooling, the cultural capital thesis argues that some students possess the social class, family, cultural background and dispositions that enable them to utilize the school environment and its facilities more efficiently than those who do not. They are better acclimatized to the curricula and other benefits that branch from it. Those who are disadvantaged in this regard, on the other hand, tend to have a weaker grasp of the same knowledge as it is culturally alien to them, thereby affecting their learning and, in turn, their growth prospects. Thus social stratification and patterns of domination and subordination are reproduced, despite the school system’s apparent intention to provide equal opportunity to all.

The same holds true for linguistic capital: it can be defined as one’s fluency, expertise and comfort with a language which is used by groups that possess economic, social, cultural and political power and status in local and global society. The linguistic capital thesis, then, states that students who possess, or develop linguistic capital, thereby have access to better life chances. Schools that teach (in) a language associated with a higher socio-economic status, in effect, provide better opportunities for those who can take up that language. Even if it is offered democratically, there exist a number of barriers that promote selective inclusion. Schools, through their medium of instruction (MOI), are implicated in the production and reproduction of certain advantages in the society; linguistic capital is both the medium and outcome of the pursuit of enhanced life chances.

It is important, however, that we understand the dynamic nature of linguistic capital. It is something that can be acquired even by those who do not have ancestral precedents. So it is not impossible for a Tamil boy with Tamil speaking parents to acquire linguistic capital that is grounded in English or Hindi. It will be inaccurate to suggest otherwise, given how so many of us who went to English medium schools never once conversed in English with our parents.

English, in contemporary India, is essential for white-collar employment and is a key component of the ‘cultural capital’ of middle class Indians. As a significant cultural resource, English language proficiency is an imperative goal for the poor and middle class people to achieve social mobility beyond a point. Many of the jobs available in government and government-aided service sector stipulate knowledge of English as essential. The private sector, even before the economic liberalization since 1991, adopted a similar approach keeping in mind India’s multilingual markets. The outsourcing era has further substantiated proficiency of English as a necessary skill set in the urban employment sector. And the jobs that do not require the knowledge of English, both in organized and unorganized sectors are significantly low paying.

The language divide between those proficient in English and those who are not is also a mirror image of broader class and spatial divisions in India. Simply put, the elite and urban professional classes are well acquainted with English; the urban and rural poor, the farmers, and the local traders and merchants are not. In India, the ability to speak in English is not simply about jobs or economic growth, it's a significant marker of social status. As with many indicators of social mobility in India -- such as property ownership, annual income, employment rate etc. -- the upper castes also tend to be most proficient in English too; as they attend private, English medium schools the most. So a lower caste parent has multiple reasons to want his/her children to be educated in English. As many Dalit scholars have argued, it is a real means of empowerment.

This is a relatively unique situation in India in comparison to countries like France, Germany, or Japan. Although it needs to be mentioned that such 'admiration' for English is common in several other countries, especially in Southeast Asia. It is disingenuous to suggest that there’s a possible parallel between aforementioned countries and India. India is also different in its market structure and the technical modernization (or the lack thereof) that the ‘regional languages’ have gone through.

(continued in next post)


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, please post the next part too.

Anonymous said...

it is interesting to read ur blog. I have seen your cooking videos before (when i wanted to experiment cooking). I thought u to be some chef kinda of.oops i made a wrong decision!! great to read ur posting!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Suresh,
I just discovered your blog in my search for a more detailed description of linguistic capital. I found your definition to be among the most insightful generalizations for what constitutes linguistic capital. My personal interests in the notion of linguistic capital is part of a larger interest in the recognition of human capital, particularly as it affects the professional integration of immigrant physicians. If you are interested, I have linked a report of the work here. http://m-cap.ca/upload-files/MCAPFinalReport2010_03Oct2011.pdf

I would look forward to hearing more of your ideas on linguistic capital and its constituent description.

Post a Comment

©2009 english-tamil