Christina Davis on her book, The Struggle for a Multilingual Future

Interview by Gaya Morris

Gaya Morris: Can you tell us a bit about what led you to this project? How did you first find yourself in Sri Lanka and what led you to conceptualizing a project about the linguistic dimensions of ethnic conflict? And I’m also curious about why you chose schools as your primary fieldsite, and why you chose to work with girls, in particular.

Christina Davis: I became interested in doing research in Sri Lanka through my six years of experience studying Tamil in Tamil Nadu, India and at the University of Michigan with Professor K. Karunakaran. I went to Sri Lanka in January 2007 on a Sinhala language grant from the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies. Tamil-speaking (Tamil and Muslim) educators, parents, and students were enthusiastic about my project on Tamil language practices, in part because of the status of Tamil as a minority language. I was intrigued by the idea that the organization of government schools in South Asia presupposes ways of ordering difference that can emphasize particular models of linguistic, ethnic, religious, caste, and class difference. This topic is highly relevant to Sri Lanka as language and education policies were part of the complex causes of the ethnic conflict and the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE (1983–2009). In the late 1990s and early 2000s the government instituted trilingual educational reforms meant to increase ethnic integration and national cohesion. I wanted to study how youth, in their interactions inside and outside of schools, made sense of and reconfigured linguistic and ethnic difference in relation to these programs. I did my primary fieldwork from 2007 to 2008, during the last phase of the war, when ethnic differences, as mobilized around language, were in particularly sharp relief. I also returned to Sri Lanka in 2011, three years after the end of the war.

While I wanted to focus on schools, I was very intent on observing and recording students’ and teachers’ interactions outside school as well. The book begins in educational institutions and expands to look at talk in homes, neighborhoods, on the street, and on the bus. I did my research at two schools in Kandy, Sri Lanka: Hindu college, a mixed-gender Tamil-medium school and Girls’ College, a girls’ multilingual school. It can be easier and more comfortable for a woman to work at a girls’ school, but I gained valuable insight from my research with the grade 11 boys at Hindu College. As I detail in chapter 5, because they felt awkward walking around town with me after school, I asked them to record their own speech using my mp3 recorder. I analyzed these recordings with the help of a Tamil research assistant who knew the school and who had grown in Kandy. These data gave me important insights about how they monitored their linguistic and social behavior outside school. While in school their speech was regimented to be Tamil only, outside school they navigated a Sinhala- majority urban setting, where the very act of speaking Tamil could be considered inappropriate or offensive and might even be seen as a security threat. I show how they were able to create different kinds of interactional spaces to which others were not privy: in classrooms, outside school, in groups, and traveling alone.

Gaya Morris: You write in chapter 1 that you strove to study the interplay of linguistic ideology and linguistic practice. Could you tell us a bit about the challenges or insights that you came to in striving to account for both and how you balanced these two aspects in your ethnographic account of why people speak certain forms of Tamil, Sinhala, or English in certain contexts? And, how did you deal with the incongruities of practice and ideology?

Christina Davis: As influenced by the work of my advisor, Judith Irvine, I was very interested in studying both explicit and implicit language ideologies. Specific methods are needed to account for both of these dimensions. I did a lot of informal interviews with teachers, parents, and students at school and at home where participants spoke explicitly about language, education, and social difference. I complemented these data by observing and recording linguistic practices at school, at home, on the bus, and on the street. Following Alexandra Jaffe (1999), I avoided making a hard-and-fast distinction between talk about language (metadiscourse) and language use but explored the complexities within and across both. I use the concept of “sphere or practice” throughout the book to look at how language is attached to ethnic, religious, regional, and class identities in everyday practices. I define it as social spaces characterized by physical setting, activity, participants, and other factors. For instance, different ideologies can connect language with ethnic difference might be emphasized in an exchange between a teacher and a student in the classroom as opposed to a conversation among students when a teacher leaves. This concept was useful because the way people both talk about and use language varies tremendously across different settings and situations, and among different participants.

The moments in which there were incongruities between talk about language and linguistic practice tended to be very revealing. For example, as I detail in chapter 6, I attended a TSL class for government administrators. I spoke with a Sinhala male student during and after the class. He initially told me that he only spoke a little bit of Tamil, but I could tell that he was very proficient. He was even correcting the instructor on translations of Sinhala administrative terms. When I tried to continue speaking with him in Tamil at the bus stop, he acted very uncomfortable and we switched to English. I found throughout my fieldwork that Sinhalas often de-emphasized their Tamil proficiency because speaking Tamil was particularly robustly associated with a Tamil (and sometimes a Muslim) ethnicity. So that incongruity between how he described his linguistic practice and his actual practices was interesting. But this example also shows that while is it is generally acceptable for a Sinhala to speak Tamil in the context of a TSL class, it is much less acceptable on the street, as a sphere of practice. Thus, notable in this example is not just the discrepancy between metadiscourse and discourse but the dynamics of his code choices across different contexts. Chapters 3–6 examine how teachers and students talk about and use different varieties of Tamil, Sinhala, and English inside and outside school. My concern with the relationship between discourse and metadiscourse is part of my exploration of language usage in relation to the reproduction of ethnic difference.

 Gaya Morris: Ultimately, you argue that rather than facilitating inter-ethnic communication and understanding, the Sinhala-as-a-second-language (SSL) and Tamil-as-a-second-language (TSL) programs actually reinforced ethnic division through linguistic-based models of ethnicity. Could you explain how you arrived at this conclusion, and then tell us, in what way would you improve these programs? Do you think all peace-building programs that focus on language learning are missing the mark? What do you think it would take?

Christina Davis: Nearly three decades ago the Sri Lankan government passed language policy reforms in education as well as the public sector. Sinhala- and Tamil-medium students were required to take their “additional” official language as a required subject from grades 6–9 and as an elective subject from grades 10–11. There was also a call for increased attention to English in primary and secondary education. As I discuss in chapter 2, the main impediment to the success of the programs in increasing interethnic integration among students is the fact that most Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim students study in separate schools. This is the result of the organization of schools on the basis of language of instruction and religion, which is a legacy of postindependence education policies. While Girls’ College was one of only a few trilingual schools in Kandy, Sinhala- and Tamil-medium students were separated in most academic contexts. I also found that local practices at Hindu College and Girls’ College emphasized the association between ethnicity, language of instruction, and linguistic practice. At Girls’ College, for example, the SSL and TSL programs were unevenly implemented. Tamil speakers (Tamils and Muslims) already knew how to speak Sinhala, so they would speak, read, and write Sinhala in the SSL classroom. Sinhalas wrote Tamil in their TSL courses but they were hesitant to speak it, and the teachers did not encourage them to do so. Thus, the way these policies are implemented emphasized the view that Tamils and Muslims should speak Sinhala, but it is unnatural and odd for Sinhalas to speak Tamil.

The Sri Lankan government has continued to attempt to implement the Official Languages Policy, which gives Tamil status as a co-official language. In addition, it has also sought to further improve youths’ competencies in Sinhala, Tamil, and English. The work of Mano Ganesan, the Tamil Hindu Minister of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages from 2015 to 2018, has been pivotal in this regard. I argue that the main problem is not with the trilingual policies themselves but in the way they have been implemented in schools. But the reforms would certainly be more effective if the education system was reorganized to better integrate Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim students. Ultimately, language and education reforms must be accompanied by broader political change. And as I note in the conclusion, the full implementation of Tamil as a co-official language is vital to the postwar reconciliation process. As a young Tamil woman who was one of my focal participants at Girls’ College recently told me, ethnic tensions will take many generations to fade away, if they do at all. And as I mention in my conclusion, since the end of the war Muslims have been heavily targeted by right Sinhala Buddhist nationalist. In addition, anti-Muslim sentiment has increased following the April 2019 Easter Attacks.

Gaya Morris: Chapter 4, on the strategic use of English by both students and teachers, offers insight into the ways that language can be used both as a means of exclusion and inclusion, differentiation and equation. Can you tell us more about the unique role that English plays both inside and outside of the school context, and how young people can employ language in working towards forms of community and belonging?  

Christina Davis: In Sri Lanka as well as in other postcolonial nations, English is widely implicated in class-based divisions. Sri Lankans have a desire to learn English to increase their social status and job prospects nationally and abroad, but groups traditionally deprived of it feel alienated from it and see it as a symbol of discrimination. While the recent educational reforms increased emphasis on English education in primary and secondary education, a high quality English education is only available to a small minority of students who study in private or national schools.

In chapter 4 I analyzed how the Girls’ College Tamil-medium students conceptualized English in relation to Tamil and Sinhala and how they used these languages across different spheres of practice in the school. I show that while English partly gains it value in opposition to Tamil and Sinhala, it is a local resource that is used in innovative ways. The students were aware that English was a coveted resource that some can manage better than others. Speaking full English with each other had the potential to make them seem like they were showing off or being arrogant. As a result, they would often speak English-inflected Tamil instead. In many settings and situations, it functioned as a neutral code that mitigated the differences between the girls who could speak English well and those who couldn’t. But the heavy use of particular English terms and expressions in their Tamil could point to their educated status or astuteness in particular domains. English could also be used to disrupt the Tamil-only norms of the classroom. For example, once when a teacher left the classroom a Tamil girl said that it was “good news” that that their Geography class was cancelled. As you astutely note, English is a variegated interactional resource that can be used to promote difference and similarity, inclusion and exclusion.

The book shows how Tamil-speaking students at Girls’ College responded to the reproduction of language-based models of ethnic difference in education policies and practices by aspiring to fit into a cosmopolitan notion of Kandy. But rather than seeing themselves as incorporated into a larger society, they associated the city with the possibility of economic or spatial mobility, whether in Sri Lanka or abroad. And while they clearly associated English with upper-middle-class status and global opportunity their conceptualization of English was intertwined with that of Tamil and Sinhala. The lower-class students at Hindu College, as they faced difficulties just to get through their education and find jobs, did not see the multilingual and multi-ethnic Kandy as a source of inspiration, but something they had to adapt to in order to survive.

Gaya Morris: I’m interested in how your book project has inspired your new research projects. Can you tell us about what you are currently working on, and looking back, how you are conceptualizing the book in relation to your current research?

Christina Davis: Facebook was just starting to be popular in Sri Lanka when I finished my primary research in 2008. Since completing the book, I’ve been interested in how the internet and social media afford new possibilities for self-expression and the negotiation of sociolinguistic difference. I have continued my interest in the implementation of Tamil as a co-official language by looking at how Tamil speakers living in-country and abroad interpret images of Tamil signboard blunders circulated on Facebook and Twitter. While all public signs are required by law to be in Sinhala, Tamil, and English, throughout the south many signs are in Sinhala only or contain errors in the Tamil or English. In a recent article in Signs and Society, I examine how people’s different interpretations of a Tamil signage blunder in which “reserved for pregnant women” was written as “reserved for pregnant dogs” reflect contrasting semiotic ideologies concerning the intentionality of the blunders and the relationship between the posted signboards and lived sociolinguistic relations. These contrasts have implications for imagined postwar futures and transnational Tamil political activism.

While it had been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m hoping to start a new research project on the configuration of Tamil identity and place in Wellawatte, a Colombo neighborhood that is a communication hub between residential and diasporic Sri Lankan Tamil populations. My fieldwork on face-to-face interactions in public spaces and social media analysis will examine how speech and visual forms of expression (images, memes, and videos) demarcate the neighborhood as a sociocultural and physical space. I’m anticipating that this project will bring me additional insight into what was unique about the historical moment in which I carried out my initial research. In addition, my focus on visual language will complement my work on socially occurring talk. Several of the participants in my initial research have expressed interest in working with me on this project. Although we are in touch regularly, I’m fascinated to learn more about how their perspectives on the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict have changed and how they  differently imagine their futures.

I have also been thinking about many of the topics from the book in a comparative perspective. For instance, Chaise LaDousa and I are co-editing a volume that examines the sociocultural significance of medium of instruction—the language in which interaction occurs in a classroom—in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

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