Language and Power; The Use of Indigenous and Local Languages in Development
Guest speaker: Professor Thor Sawin
Resources: What Getting By in English Costs Fieldworkers
This reading was particularly striking for me as it reminded me of my experience in Cambodia. As a “fieldworker”, I felt it was only right to learn the Khmer language to better connect with locals, and I did until I discovered everyone preferred English.
To my surprise, almost everyone I encountered including children had a pretty good command of English. The locals actually wanted me to speak to them in English, teach them English, sing in English, books in English – they wanted everything in English. In this context, and in relation to the reading, it was clear to me that the preferred language of communication was . . . English. The benefits for learning Khmer was relatively low because it was not being reciprocated to me that I should learn Khmer. I definitely learned enough to hold choppy conversations, but the goal for this one particular community that I worked so closely with was to establish an English school.
They really saw English as a way to move up in their society. If a child learned to speak English, their chances of going to University and getting a better paid job were higher than those who didn’t.
As Sawin mentioned in his article, how the fieldworker’s work is “received, evaluated, idealized, and caricatured” is crucial within the host community. It’s necessary and important to be mindful of the subconscious impressions and attributions the fieldworker and the host may have towards the language at play.
Realizing this helped alleviate the pressure of learning the language for the work’s sake, and instead became more fun and informal. Learning the language this way actually deepened my relationships with locals and really helped me understand why learning English was so important to them.
Like Sawin recommended, understanding the linguistic ecology by acquainting oneself with ethnographic and indexical mapping in the host site is pivotal when conducting work whether developmental or not in any given community.