An exploratory study of a Tamil immigrant community in Austin, Texas : issues of language maintenance and shift

Ernest, Harishini Marysze
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This study examines the language choices of Tamil immigrants, part of a South Asian diasporic community, in Austin, Texas. The researcher posits reasons why Tamil language maintenance/shift occurs for this Tamil community in the United States English-dominant macrosociety. The study also examines the domains in which Tamil and English are used and the various sociolinguistic factors which influence the language maintenance/shift of Tamil. Tamil immigrant participants were selected by snowballing, a non-probability purposive sampling technique. This multi-modal study used both quantitative (a questionnaire) and qualitative data (participant interviews and participant observations). One hundred and nineteen questionnaires were collected of which 90 were used for this study. In addition, twelve first or second generation Tamil individuals were interviewed. Background for the study included reasons for emigration from the home country, Tamil diglossia, diaspora issues, identity issues, and language as a site of struggle. The theoretical framework included language as power, language as investment, and linguistic imperialism. Examining the language of instruction, participants interestingly evidenced a kline in English use from 67.1% in elementary grades, to 84.8% in the middle and high/secondary school, to 95.3% at the university level. Also, comparing language use as a child versus language use as an adult, there was a kline (continuum) moving from 'always using Tamil' in all domains as a child to 'equally in Tamil and English' in all domains as an adult. Participants were split as to why they used Tamil with some using it for privacy/secrecy and some using it for pride. A much smaller percent used Tamil for intimacy. Finally, with regard to language proficiency, participants evinced a declining kline from understanding, speaking, and reading, writing colloquial Tamil. The participants' proficiency in literary Tamil was also a declining kline with only 16.7% understanding, 17.8% reading, and even less speaking (8.9%) or writing (7.8%) literary Tamil. The results of this research study and an analysis of Moag’s 31 factors for maintenance/loss of Tamil, showed that the prospects for the continued maintenance of Tamil in Austin were limited. Finally, this study provided valuable sociolinguistic insight into this little-studied South Asian diasporic community in Austin, Texas.