Patterns of Language Use and Perceptions of Ethnic Identity in Three-Generation Catholic Malayalee Families

Fernandez Hazel

English Language Honours AE, NIE, 1998


    Boundaries of ethnic and cultural identity in Singapore are constantly blurred by a set of paradoxes: On the one hand, it is deemed critical to maintain a minority language to facilitate the transmission of cultural and ethnic values. On the other hand, it seems necessary to demolish social and linguistic barriers in a multicultural setting, and to adapt to the culturally and linguistically plural society via a language of wider communication. In Singapore, this common language is English, highly esteemed as the vehicle for social and economic mobility and transactional convenience.

    It is imperative, then, to study language choices in both inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic communication in a society where massive language sifts are underway.

    This study centres on the language shift among the Catholic Malayalees whose ethnic language, Malayalam, and culture are under siege due to the lack of favourable contexts in which to realise them, hence leading to considerable gaps between generations in term of language use, language proficiency and cultural make-up.

    The study stresses on the relation between languages and their usage in social networks as central to the understanding of the rapid language shift from Malayalam to English in the Catholic Malayalee community. The researcher carries out a study of ten three-generation Catholic Malayalee families in order to assess patterns of language use and the attendant perceptions of ethnic identity that contribute to the language shift.

    Results point towards an intergenerational shift to English, from Malayalam monolingualism among a small fraction of the sample population, to a bridging combination of Malayalam and English, and finally, a widespread phenomenon of English monolingualism. Social networks reveal that the Malayalam monolingualisms identify more closely with ethnic group members and therefore maintain the ethnic language to a certain extent. What is significant is that the larger cross-section of Catholic Malayalees has shifted towards less ethnically oriented networks and more English-dominant language choice patterns.

    Respondents also perceive themselves largely as Singaporean-Indians rather than in specifically ethnic terms. The socio-psychological factors, the institutional and community standing on language policies, all of which help formulate a new brand of ethnic identity, are also examined.