Sunday, January 19, 2020

Christina P. Davis's "The Struggle for a Multilingual Future"

Christina P. Davis is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Struggle for a Multilingual Future: Youth and Education in Sri Lanka, and reported the following:
Excerpt from page 99:
On the morning of their first O-level exam session in December 2007, the Hindu College grade 11 class went to do pujas at the Kandy Pillayar Kovil, a Hindu temple devoted to the god Ganesh. I arrived at the temple at 6:15 a.m. to wish them good luck on their exams. I joined a group of Hindu College girls who were standing in the paved space in front of the temple. The boys were huddled together a small distance away. The students chatted with one another in nervous excitement. The girls watched as the rest of their classmates arrived, saying, “Hi, morning” and “EppaDi?” (How’s it going?). When a boy named Michael approached the girls, one whispered to another, “Enakku Michaela kaNNulayee kaaTTaadu” (I hate Michael). A girl asked her friend for money for a sugar bun because she had forgotten to eat breakfast. Another girl relayed how she had walked to the bus stand without her national ID card so she had to run all the way back to her house to get it.
Page 99 represents my book well. It introduces a key chapter that investigates peer groups and Tamil identity inside and outside schools. This page demonstrates the book’s focus on everyday interactions by recounting conversations that occurred among Tamil students at a Hindu temple in Kandy, Sri Lanka. These girls and boys, who were all in the grade 11 class at a nearby Tamil-medium school, had come to the temple to do pujas before taking their Ordinary-level exams, the results of which would influence their educational and career trajectories. They spoke to each other in Tamil mixed with Sinhala (the majority language) and English words and expressions. This occasion was special in that it was one of the few times in which they were all together away from the immediate gaze of their teachers. Areas outside temples are commonly used as gathering places in South Asia, but these activities were restricted during the last phase of the Sri Lankan civil war (2006–2009) because of security concerns. This page shows the excitement and reluctance that the students felt as they broke away from the group to head to their separate testing locations.

The subsequent pages frame this introductory narrative by explaining the focus of the chapter on how the Hindu College students managed different forms of monitoring and the reinforcing of ethnicity in school and in other public spaces. In school youths’ ethnic identities were reproduced in relation to language of instruction and linguistic practice. Outside of school they navigated a Sinhala-majority setting, where the very act of speaking Tamil may be considered inappropriate or offensive or might even be seen as a security threat. This chapter shows how these Tamil youth created interactional spaces where others were not privy, whether in the classroom, at a temple, or on the street. It also incorporates recordings of their interactions to look at how they managed their status as lower-class ethnic minorities by building Tamil cocoons around themselves to insulate them in Sinhala-majority public spaces. This is an important chapter in the book as it moves from schools to public spaces to look at how language-based models of ethnicity were reproduced in everyday talk. The last section of the chapter returns to the opening narrative to discuss the students’ trajectories after finishing their Ordinary-level exams and losing the support of their school-based peer groups.
Visit Christina P. Davis's website.

--Marshal Zeringue