Sonia Das on her new book, Linguistic Rivalries

Interview by Lia Siewert

Lia Siewert: Your ethnography looks at how Québec’s Franco-Anglo conflicts, or linguistic rivalries, are reproduced in the language practices of Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil-speaking communities in Montréal. How would you describe your book to someone who is not familiar with the politics of language choice in Québec?

Sonia Das: I would start off by saying that in some parts of the world, people are willing to die for their language.  In Montréal this sentiment is very much alive among the folks with whom I conducted my research. Many have participated in movements of linguistic nationalism and fought for their language rights to be recognized and protected in their home societies, in addition to Québec. I would then emphasize how especially contentious language choices are in Québec. In fact, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to state that people there always notice which language you choose to speak (or write) at any given time and with any given interlocutor.  Some people get very upset – and will tell you or show you so – if you make what they believe to be the wrong choices. At the same time, some people in Québec want nothing to do with Anglo-Franco conflicts. They would prefer to think of language as a neutral tool in the classic liberal sense and opt out of these debates altogether by speaking English exclusively, yet the law still obliges them to learn and use French for education, business, and government. There are also just as many people who are mindful of the evolving stakes of linguistic rivalries and seek to strategically display their loyalty to both their host and home societies. Upwardly mobile Indian Tamil immigrants generally fall into the first category, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees into the second, and their children span the spectrum of political allegiances. No one in Québec truly escapes the interpellating effects of a language ideology that conflates language and ethnonational identity. My book thus explores how the politics of language choice are part and parcel of belonging to a globalizing society that imagines language as the essence of cultural heritage and civic identity.

Lia Siewert: You specifically mention the “voices” you had to exclude from the book’s discussion. Which voices are you referring to? And what kinds of “future retellings and revisions” are you hoping emerge from these omissions?

Sonia Das: This is not only a book about the politics of language choice. This is also a book about the politics of doing ethnography on language choice within the context of a pro-nationalist society that nonetheless seeks to be welcoming of immigrants and refugees fleeing politically turbulent situations and worrying about having their social mobility restricted through the integration process.  As I mentioned in my first response, almost every citizen and immigrant feels strongly about language issues in Montréal, even if it is to simply assert that language occupies too much attention in public discourse.  Some people, however, cannot openly state their opinions for fear of losing their jobs, their residency, or their lives.  I am mindful of the precarious position of many of my informants who have trusted me with their stories and I exclude the voices of the most vulnerable, including undocumented immigrants, children, and Tamil-Canadians who speak critically of the government or the LTTE. I did not want this book to be about war or political conflict in order to avoid feeding into negative stereotypes about Tamil “terrorists” in Canada and also because there are already several books exploring the experiences and memories of war among refugees in Toronto that have come out at about the same time.

Also, even though I received permission from the English school board to work with children attending Tamil PELO classes, I chose to only analyze the talk of children whose parents gave me permission to include them in the transcripts. Outside of schools, I regret not being able to follow up with the Muslim and Protestant contacts that I had made, and so the book depicts a polarized division between Hindus and Catholics that is not fully representative of the diversity of the diaspora. Lastly, this book is the product of an unfortunate decision made by the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (French school board) to reject my application to conduct research at French public schools, citing the “political content” of my research as the reason for their refusal. This rejection came after almost six months of jumping through bureaucratic hoops and corresponding with teachers, principals, and government officials, and I was devastated, to say the least. One of my dissertation committee members sympathetically advised me that even this rejection counts as data, and so I started to think more reflexively about how my positionality as a biracial Indian American woman with roots in Québec and with an easily recognizable lower-class Québécois accent meant that certain doors would open for me and others would close.  The revisions that I imagine would involve someone of a different set of interests and occupying a different positionality paying attention to the diversity of these Tamil communities in ways that I could not, and the future retellings would capitalize on recent political changes in Québécois and Tamil societies to explore whether and how language choice and multilingualism are still contentious today.

Lia Siewert: Your archival research is expansive and the conclusions you draw from it are compelling; specifically, it is fascinating that Québec’s Tamil diaspora has produced ideologies and practices particular to Montréal, but drawn from texts in Sri Lanka and India. Could you elaborate on the significance of investigating Tamil use in India and Sri Lanka and the growing ideological separation of forms of Tamil in Montréal?

Sonia Das: When I shared my conclusion with my Professor of Tamil at the University of Michigan that second-generation Indian-Canadians identify as speaking Spoken Tamil and Sri Lankan-Canadians identify as speaking Written Tamil, he immediately corrected me and explained that these diglossic “registers” are the same “language.” Though I clarified my observations as language ideologies, he remained convinced that either my reasoning or my informants’ reasoning was faulty. Having studied “Written Tamil” first at the University of Michigan and “Spoken Tamil” second at the American Institute for Indian Studies in Madurai, it would have been natural for me to have confused the issues, and so I did a lot of cross-checking to make sure that this language ideology was indeed backed up by explicit metapragmatic statements as well as cultural practices institutionalized across different social domains. Also, when I presented my research in Toronto and looked into the heritage language scene there, I understood this to be truly a Montréal phenomenon. There is no recorded evidence of any other Tamil diaspora – whether situated in Europe, Australia, South Asia, Africa, or elsewhere in North America – making similar claims about their languages.  And yet, the idea that Spoken Tamil and Written Tamil are grammatically and stylistically distinct linguistic codes became widely accepted in the 19th century, precisely at a time when British, French, and other Europeans were competing to produce the most authoritative lexicographies and perfected copies of ancient Tamil texts in South Asia. This historical perspective led me to explore in the archives how Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil ideologies of language diverged through a series of ideological mediations and in relation to imperialist Anglo-Franco conflicts which, in all their idiosyncratic forms, have driven much of modern political history.

Lia Siewert: It seems like the Ministry of Education’s attention to minority language education attributes value to these languages only in the service of boosting anti-Anglo attitudes—therefore, while languages such as Tamil or Tagalog are given lip service, ultimately their success is meaningless to Québec as long as English is decentered and French is increasingly the language of social and economic mobility. How would you argue for or against this reading?

Sonia Das: Actually, it was not my intention to target Québec’s Ministry of Education as paying mere lip service to Canadian multicultural values.  The fact that you read my book in this way, however, suggests perhaps the leaking influence of two over-determined and partially overlapping interpretations of heritage language education in Québec today. The first of these is a belief that reflects the increasingly neoliberal practices of many governments (and not exclusive to Québec) that values heritage language education insofar as it creates economic and political value for the host society and enables socioeconomic mobility for citizens.  The second reading is more cynical. It claims that heritage language programs were only created in Montréal in 1978 to appease ethnic minority voters who were upset when they first learned that they would have to send their children to French and not the preferred English-medium public schools after the passage of Bill 101. Even if the Ministry had originally intended the PELO as a form of appeasement to ethnic minority voters, I would not conclude that teaching heritage languages boosted anti-Anglo attitudes, for three reasons. First, heritage language classes have been offered in English-medium schools in Montréal since the early 1980s.  Second, the accepted practice of English code-mixing with heritage languages such as Tamil increases the presence of English in French-medium schools and reinforces the status of English as a cosmopolitan language.  Third, even though the greatest number of PELO classes is in Montréal’s French-medium school system, there are neighborhoods where the only school that teaches a specific heritage language is an English-medium one. Additionally, if you were to compare Canadian heritage language programs with bilingual education programs in American and European contexts, for example, the Canadian pedagogy is arguably more expansive and robust. I live in New York City where there are a lot of bilingual schools and bilingual services but where there is no public school that could teach my children Bengali, their heritage language. So, to return to your question, although it is true that one of the Ministry of Education’s primary tasks is to promote the teaching of French and encourage the identification of children in Québec with this civic language, as opposed to English, the fact that significant government resources are being funneled to heritage language schools in an array of languages would argue against a too reductionist reading of this language policy.

Lia Siewert: What is your next project?

Sonia Das: I have two new ongoing projects.  The first, which is an extension of my first book project on Indian and Sri Lankan relations in the context of the Canadian Tamil diaspora, focuses instead on the ways in which language politics influence maritime exchanges and sociopolitical relations between post-colonial Sri Lanka and South India. I use ethnographic, archival, and linguistic methods to investigate how maritime language policies and infrastructural projects of port building and sea dredging have transformed the lived spaces and social identities in and around the Gulf of Mannar, which is a narrow body of water separating the Tamil Nadu port of Thoothukudi and Sri Lankan port of Colombo. I focus on infrastructural projects and maritime policies enacted in the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka (1983-2009) and during the geopolitical race between India and China to control international shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean (2009-present). I also inquire into how language activism articulates with movements for religious, environmental, and labor rights and politicizes both sides of the coast by destabilizing trade and transport and rechanneling the flow of labor migration. Included in this research is a pilot project on the language practices and infrastructural conditions of sociability among Asian seafarers working for the global shipping industry at ports Newark and Montréal.


My second project is in collaboration with Dr. Sherina Feliciano-Santos at the University of South Carolina, and it focuses on our shared interests in language and racial inequality. Together, we analyze issues of free speech within police-suspect interactions by investigating the contexts in which a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) suspect’s communicative behavior, which with few exceptions is considered protected speech under the First Amendment, is construed as disorderly conduct or necessitating escalated force. Combining ethnographic fieldwork with over 900 hours of dashcam and bodycam video and audio data and case files of DUI arrests in South Carolina, we seek to identify the linguistic and contextual factors that impact how suspects’ communicative practices are interpreted and enacted upon by police officers. At a time when violence in police-suspect encounters has become a matter of great public concern, we believe that there is an urgent need for data-driven public policy that draws on the strengths of linguistic anthropology to elucidate the relationship between language, race, and criminal justice. It also seems like an opportune time for linguistic anthropologists to contribute to discussions of big data, especially in light of the normalization of surveillance in everyday social life.