On Becoming a Middle Class (by Pramod Sah)

Our guest blogger this week, Pramod K. Sah, is a PhD candidate & Killam Scholar in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia. His research interests include language planning and policy, English medium instruction, language ideology, TESOL and social justice, politics of English, and critical literacies. His work is driven by the core values of social justice indexes, for example, class and ethnicity, in English language education policies and practices in low- and middle-income polities, often drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s critical social theories. Pramod’s research has appeared in the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, International Multilingual Research Journal, and Asia Pacific Journal of Education, among others, and in many edited volumes.

The privilege of being an ethnographer is to get continued reminders to check and re-check one’s perceptions toward what’s happening in society. In 2019 during my ethnographic fieldwork at a public school (government-funded) in an ethnic minority community in Nepal (called Madheshi), one question that a student interlocutor asked me challenged my perspectives toward the English language that I had firmly held.

“How can I become a middle-class without English?” was a question as well as a concern that Sarita directed to me when I discussed the need for English with my student interlocutors in a focus group. Sarita was a tenth grader girl who attended Nepali-medium classes in that school. The same school also offered English-medium (EM) classes, but Sarita was not able to join EM classes because her parents were not in the position to pay the required tuition fees. Her parents were manual workers at a local factory. 

I have a strong love and hate relationship with the English language, both personally and professionally, which of course informs my research agendas and positionality as a researcher. The social capital that I had received being an English language teacher back in Nepal (before 2013) had guided my belief in English as the language of modernity and development that I strongly recommended people around me to learn. In fact, I was intimately in love with English.

During my sojourn abroad, especially in the UK, when I bore the brunt of epistemic inequalities, discrimination, and racialization because of being a non-native speaker of English (I have documented the experience in an autoethnography), my relationship with English became complicated. In the meantime, while growing as a scholar to learn about the cultural politics of English, reading my motivators like Alastair Pennycook and Ryuko Kubota, I grew to believe that English was the language of inequalities, and that it may not necessarily be required for the people in Nepal. A couple of years ago at a conference in Canada, while I was presenting my research on English-medium education in Nepal, an audience member asked me if English was really needed for the Nepali people, and I replied: “Not necessarily”. 

Children from poor families heading to a public school

After learning about Sarita, I would now rephrase my answer. Born to working-class parents and not being able to attend EM classes, Sarita had always aspired to learn English through whatever possible ways she could. She always lamented her economic inability to attend EM classes and to miss a better opportunity to learn English. But, as she often stressed during the conversation, she tried to read English newspapers, magazines, and storybooks and listened to English news in order to self-learn English.

She was doing all this because she wanted to become a doctor in the future. She always referred to the need for English as a rudiment for becoming a doctor. I remember her saying, “Sir, see yourself, how you have become rich [in her view, I was a middle-class person as I live in Canada] and educated because you know English, and if I become a doctor, I can be a middle-class and my parents won’t need to work in a factory.”

Further, she was vocal when she indicated how important it is for girls to learn English to compete with their male counterparts for further education and jobs. While girls have always been marginalized, for example, in access to education and employment in Nepal’s patriarchal society, she believed English would provide her some socioeconomic benefits. As Sarita proudly shared with me, she had some kind of capital already in her classroom in that she was one of the very few students who knew some English.

Sarita’s story demonstrates how English is associated with the “emotions” of poor students. They foresee their future through the lens of English. Similar to Sarita, there are many students, especially from groups which have been minoritized along the lines of class, ethnicity, and gender, who would like to join the middle-class with the acquisition of English. So, although I’m not in a position to answer Sarita’s question about whether English can help her become a middle-class, I’m challenged to rethink the consequences of keeping poor students “below the English line,” while their elite counterparts have access to English in the “Englishized” societies.

Although many scholars doubt the potential of English providing “real” economic capital, in the societies where English is perceived as a means to claim membership in the middle-class and to provide some symbolic capital, it’s important that we move beyond “English as a language of inequalities.” However, I don’t intend to confuse the reader into thinking that I think that English is an apolitical language. Having been on the receiving end of inequalities and discrimination myself from the normative and monoglossic ideologies of English, how can I even mask the potential risks associated with the ideologies of English!

References

Pennycook, A. D. (1994). The cultural politics of English as in international language. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kubota, R. (2015). Inequalities of Englishes, English speakers, and languages: A critical perspective of pluralist approaches to English. In T. R. F. Tupas (Ed.), Unequal Englishes: The politics of Englishes today (pp. 21–41). New York: Palgrave.

Kubota, R., & McKay, S. (2009). Globalization and language learning in rural Japan: The role of English in the local linguistic ecology. TESOL Quarterly, 43, 593-619.

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