Interview by Kim Fernandes
Kim Fernandes: In your book, you argue that your participants (who are parents of dual heritage children and are themselves bilingual British South Asians) have a “relationship” with the Heritage Language. You intentionally use relationship as a metaphor to acknowledge the dynamic and often shifting ways in which one’s identity and the use of language are connected. For anyone who may not yet have read your book, would you be able to say a little bit more about what inspired this framing?
Sheena Kalayil: My starting point within this research was to try and find out whether people maintained their Heritage Language(s). As I began to listen to my participants talk about how they view their Heritage Languages, I began to reflect on my own experiences with Malayalam, my Heritage Language, and to realize that it was indeed a relationship. While I was talking to my participants, I also saw my own understanding of narrative inquiry shift. All of the participants – well, except for one – were older than me, by at least a little bit. They were all in what I would describe as ambitious or prestigious jobs. Their jobs all required a particular set of professional skills, and they were not going to let me write the story of their lives. They wanted to tell their life stories in their own way. So, our interviews were very much jointly constructed between us. The participants were driving the narrative of their lives, deciding what they wanted to talk about in the interview setting, and the way they were talking helped me construct this idea of having a relationship with their identity and language.
Multilingualism is very complex, and it should not be investigated through one approach. In my book, I wanted to show that monolingual interviews with participants can provide just as rich, just as useful, if not more useful, insights into the study of multilingualism and multiculturalism. In particular, I wanted to address the discourse around multiculturalism in the UK, which I think differs from US discourse in some ways. A lot of people assume that because the UK is multicultural, it will be a multilingual country. And while the multiculturalism is celebrated, it is also often considered a problem – you’re celebrated on the one hand and problematized on the other. If you’re an ethnic minority, even if you’re married to a white monolingual person, society expects your family to be multilingual, and there’s a sense of disappointment in situations where this isn’t the case.
Kim Fernandes: What inspired your choice of narrative inquiry as a method for the book? How did you work to build a narrative environment that allowed participants, as you point out, to move away from strictly linear understandings of space and time, and to instead generatively reconsider the ways in which language learning intersected with their understandings of time and space?
Sheena Kalayil: You know, in another life, I would have loved to be an anthropologist, and have done an ethnographic study. But with this study
, it wasn’t the right time in my life to do that, and I wouldn’t have been the right person to be doing it. For me, a researcher has to really believe they are the only person who can be doing the study that they are doing. Being a writer, too, storytelling is important to me – and so the idea of just letting people tell their stories was very appealing to me. I began by reading about narrative research, but I came up against very canonical approaches. When I thought about them, I also thought, well, if somebody asked me those questions (say, for instance, about the one critical incident that had really got me thinking about my use of Heritage Language), I would not be able to pull out just one incident, because our lives are made up of so many incidents. I was also thinking about the ways in which we don’t really understand what’s happening when we are young, and often, you only get a sense of what happened as you grow older. So, too, there’s a retrospective building of a story. The other thing I took on board was that my participants are busy people and not everybody is comfortable with talking about themselves – so I didn’t want to start a research project which would die a quick death because people either found it too onerous to participate or I just wasn’t setting the right tone.
I quickly realized that a researcher should not just bank on the commonalities they might share with participants and assume that they are able to ask any kind of question or talk about anything. I’m not comfortable talking about a lot of my own life or family dynamics, so I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable answering certain questions. I was also aware that there were many things that I didn’t have in common with my participants. At one point, then, I decided to think of a narrative inquiry on my own terms. That is, asking people to tell their lives using interviews as my research tool and adopting a theoretical framework which respected how they chose to drive their narrative. I believe this approach allowed me to do the participants and their narratives justice. And through the messiness that arises from semi-structured interviews, I never felt like I was imposing my own research strategy or structure on the data. Instead, after transcribing the interviews and using Bakhtin’s theories of chronotopes, I was able to pick the aspects of the interview that the participants themselves were trying to highlight to me.
Kim Fernandes: At the beginning of the book, you describe an episode from the BBC radio program, Mind Your Language, where there is a particular disconnect between the topics that researchers are typically interested in when studying multilingualism and the rich everyday linguistic experiences of a range of Heritage Language speakers whose interests are typically not represented in research. You also talk about how writing this book was a way for you to center the voices of people like you that is, highly educated second-generation South Asian Britons from a range of professional backgrounds whose experiences with multiculturalism and multilingualism are often not the focus of research. Could you tell us a little bit more about what kinds of audiences you’d imagined when preparing this book?
Sheena Kalayil: I am a minority in the UK, and I’ve married outside of my linguistic, ethnic and religious community, and I have what are termed dual heritage children. So, all of these things are very close to me and my participants. But at the same time, I am very much an outsider. I wasn’t born in the UK, and I didn’t go to school here, I didn’t have that kind of formative upbringing that many of my participants did. Research that I was reading focused on particular types of South Asian communities – living in close linguistic and religious communities, working-class – because they are rich sources for research into multilingualism and cultural identity. But by focusing on those rich sources, there were a lot of people in the UK who were flying under the radar of most researchers – as I noticed from my own milieu, from my friends and this comes back to your question about who my audience is. My first audience was really myself. As a researcher of color in this country, I felt like I had a responsibility to add to the corpus through my ethnographic perspective as an insider-outsider. I felt like this allowed me to develop a different perspective on multiculturalism and multilingualism from the well-trodden research routes within existing conversations. So, the second audience for the monograph was also the academic community. However, I also firmly believe that the way I write and present the data is accessible in ways that might be of broader interest to those interested in a wide range of related issues, even if not directly as students of linguistics.
Kim Fernandes: Right now, with COVID-19, a lot of interviews are increasingly being conducted over Zoom or Skype. I noticed, though, that even prior to this moment, you’d chosen to do a combination of in-person and Skype interviews for you book. What influenced the choice of interview location, and in turn, how did that shape the nature of the narratives shared with you?
Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really interesting question. I was worried that if I insisted on in-person interviews, I would narrow the scope of my participants for a number of reasons. I had to fit interviews into my daily life and couldn’t afford to pay a substantial amount of money for travel. I didn’t want to limit my research to the area I live in, Manchester, but I wanted a breadth of the South Asian experience, linguistically and geographically in the UK. So, while it would feel absolutely normal now to set up the Zoom interview, I realized when doing my research that the two kinds of interviews were different, but it wasn’t that one was better than the other. Meeting people online, in a way, allowed me to be a more considerate interviewer: I could fit in the Skype interviews around their daily routines. I felt like online interviews allowed me to touch on things that were sensitive to people of South Asian heritage, such as love marriages, arguments with parents over raising children, and so on, while also being respectful of my participant’s space.
I do think, as well, that what the online interviews did was focus the interview very closely on the participant and their language experiences, in ways that may not have been possible with in-person interviews, and this might be a consideration for research in the future. I hope this also means that we can move away from thinking about in-person ethnographic work as the only way in which to collect putatively authentic data.
Kim Fernandes: I noticed in the book that caste only come up a couple of times, with one participant. Elsewhere, you mention status and race, and their relationship to language, but there is almost no discussion of caste as a fairly significant oppressive, hierarchical system across South Asia and South Asian diasporic communities. Can you say more about how caste did – or didn’t – come up in your own conversations, analysis and writing, particularly with regard to how it influenced participants’ relationship with language?
Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really good question, and I think it’s interesting that I haven’t been asked that before. Caste hasn’t played a major role in my life, and it wasn’t at the top of my agenda. However, when I was gathering participants for this study, I could tell from their last names about their caste – and one participant, as you mentioned, brought up her own caste. It wasn’t a question that I asked, since I wasn’t planning on asking my participants about their caste or religion. But being South Asian, of course, meant that religion did come up at some point with the participants. Given the contested nature of caste in the homeland, I felt that in the UK, caste may not have been as prominent a feature, even though there were numerous hints relating to caste and religion throughout. In future research, this is definitely something I’d like to look into.