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Reconsidering language shift within Singapore’s Chinese community: A Bourdieusian analysis
Speak Mandarin Campaign
Language policy
Language shift
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Bokhorst-Heng, W., & Silver, R. E. (2017). Reconsidering language shift within Singapore’s Chinese community: A Bourdieusian analysis. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2017(248), 73-95.
The official narrative told by national census data in Singapore is that of massive language shift within one generation from a myriad of Chinese dialects towards Mandarin and English as dominant home languages. This story of shift is often told in ways that suggest the community completely and pragmatically transformed its practices and allegiances (Jaffe 2007) in alignment with government policy. However, such notions are premised on narrow ideological assumptions of language with fixed attendant linguistic practices. The choices that people make about their language practices and how they identify with language is much more complex that the term “language shift” captures. We employ Bourdieu’s conceptual tools of field, capital and habitus – especially field – to understand the “messier” realities of historical language shift in Singapore alongside a persistence, even a renaissance, in the use of dialects despite government policies and quadrilingual discourses. We anchor our discussion on the Speak Mandarin Campaign, the keystone of continuing government efforts to influence the habitus within the linguistic field. We provide two specific examples: the continued agitation for the use of dialects in the mass media, and the government’s failed attempt to influence a change in family surnames. Singapore’s story problematizes the notion of language shift in multilingual communities. It also raises interesting questions about the nature and impetus of language shift, the socio-political discourses surrounding these shifts, and the complex interplay of government policy and community and personal choices.
0165-2516 (print)
1613-3668 (online)
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