AUTHOR: Sebastian M. Rasinger TITLE: Bengali-English in East London SUBTITLE: A study in urban multilingualism SERIES TITLE: Contemporary Studies in Descriptive Linguistics, Volume 11 PUBLISHER: Peter Lang YEAR: 2007
Joshua Nash, Discipline of Linguistics, University of Adelaide, Australia
This monograph sheds light on a specific area of sociolinguistic research, namely multilingualism in an urban setting, using the example of the Bengali-English spoken in the Tower Hamlets area of East London as a case study. It comprises the eleventh volume in a series of publications in contemporary descriptive linguistics with a pronounced sociolinguistic bent. It contextualizes research into dialectology in England using the example of a specific bi/tri-lingual community in an urban setting and also contributes to understanding the demographics and sociocultural status of Bangladeshis in London. In addition this book offers a fair deal of insight, though inadvertently at times and often not made explicit, into understanding the linguistic nature of this Bengali minority in East London, the relationship and nature of Bengali-English syntactic crossover, and analysis of the status of Bangladeshi Bengali and the closely-related Sylheti in London.
In the introductory three chapters the author explores a range of relevant theory and literature applicable to such an analysis of bilingualism, particularly in the urban context. General notions and definitions of speech community, ethnolinguistic vitality, and multilingualism are treated to a reasonable level, although it is often not clear in the early chapters the extent or depth to be expected in the overall analysis. It is thus difficult to deem whether the reviewed literature is broad enough or not for the expected results that are to follow. Chapter Four presents a very brief yet water-tight account of methods used in obtaining spontaneous speech data as well as addressing issues involved in participant observation and the position of the researcher in the interview situation.
The five research questions presented on page 73 are long awaited in the text and the author could have benefited by providing these in a brief form much earlier in the book, if only to give the reader a taste of what is to come. It is only at this stage in the volume that the author (a) places his literature review into a current theoretical argument, and (b) explains what the rest of the study involves.
The analytical component of the book comprising the middle four chapters deals with syntactic analysis, syntactic development and performance, a sociolinguistic analysis of Bengali-English, and analysis of ethnolinguistic vitality respectively. Rasinger gives a reasonable account of aspects of syntactic performance via analysis of copulas, auxiliaries, prepositions, determiners, and pronouns in his data on Bengali-English. One of the major findings and implications for sociolinguistics is that L1 transfer to L2, i.e. from Bengali/Sylheti to English, is not the only effect on L2 acquisition or performance, and suggests that Standard English, the various vernaculars of English, and foreigner talk all exist in a complex linguistic relationship with each other. This is, of course, not in any way a new realization for sociolinguistics but Rasinger has shown this quite competently using a well-defined and focused corpus of Bengali-English.
The syntactic analysis moves into an attempt to ascertain the relationship between the sentence and non-linguistic data, i.e. informants' social and psychological background. Age, age of arrival in Britain, length of residence, and the ability to predict performance from these factors culminate in a model describing the relationship between syntactic performance, interlanguage influence, and non-linguistic factors for Bengali-English in Tower Hamlets. One of the most interesting though not surprising outcomes from the author's data is the suggestion that community structure in the Bengali-speaking community in East London bears very strong and similar resemblance to that in non-urban Bangladesh. This insight has great significance for the further categories of analysis, namely gender, language use, language choice and language contact, motivation, integration, and social distance. Here the analysis leads to the general conclusion that the social landscape of Bengali-speaking Londoners is generally focussed on linguistic and social interaction with Bengali/Sylheti speakers, resulting in their rather Bengali-centric linguistic and cultural perspective. This naturally has ramifications for the learning of L2 and furthermore for ethnolinguistic vitality and questions of linguistic assimilation of Bengali-English speakers into British society. Data gathered from questionnaires suggest that Bengali/Sylheti speakers engage in limited linguistic contact with ethnic British English and that the speaking of English generally takes place outside the home environment. This contact is limited to few domains, e.g. shopping and health based dealings. Of interest to the sociolinguistics of Bengali-English speakers, Rasinger's data suggests that if respondents have a choice there is a general tendency to choose interlocutors of Bengali stock.
To sum up, the author argues that for the Bengali community the preferred language at home is Bengali/Sylheti and that English is used for administrative purposes and to varying degrees across age, gender, social status, and degree of assimilation into greater British society. The possible development of a unique speech variety of Bengali-English (''Benglish'') in a similar mould to London Jamaican and its role in the potential encapsulation and isolation of this sub-section of British society is proposed, rounding off the work with food for thought for researchers interested in analysing the sociolinguistic status of subcontinental diaspora in Britain.
In the introductory chapters the author states and presents many of the problems, questions, and inadequacies of sociolinguistics and doing sociolinguistic research, while not necessarily offering any adequate or applicable alternative to the proposed theories and research methods. An explicit statement of this study's methodological and thus theoretical contribution to Bengali-English sociolinguistics would have stationed the work much more strongly in the modern sociolinguistic canon and would have opened up the study to broader application and replication.
Another general criticism is that during the analysis chapters the author often confusingly refers to theory and interprets his results in light of previous studies rather than synthesizing such arguments more precisely in the concluding chapter. By doing so, the two major theoretical models resulting from the study (p. 178 and p. 252) would have been offered contextually with much stronger reference to the already presented theory in the initial theoretical explication in the opening three chapters. This practical oversight often bleaches the theoretical weight of the implications of the study, and thus leads the reader away from identifying its relationship to possible future research and the overall placement of the research within the sociolinguistics of Bengali diaspora around the world.
It also seems surprising that although Baker and Eversley (2000) have discussed the state of multilingualism of London's schoolchildren and further mapped the language ecology and extent of child linguistic diversity in London and in particular the distribution of Bengali/Sylheti speakers, a distinction the author makes clear, no reference is made to this work.
This research is warranted within sociolinguistics and is indeed valuable to the subfield of studies into ethnolinguistic vitality in multicultural Britain. More welcomed would have been a presentation of several expanded journal articles pinpointing and dealing in depth and in a much sharper fashion with the pressing aspects addressed herein such as syntax, the sociolinguistics status of Bengali-English and the Bengali-English speaking community, and empirical ethnolinguistic vitality. Although the monograph might have been much briefer, more condensed, and more pointed, it contributes to understanding aspects of Bengali sociolinguistics and varieties of subcontinental English.
Baker, Philip & Eversley, John (eds.). 2000. ''Multilingual Capital: The languages of London’s schoolchildren and their relevance to economic, social and educational policies''. London: Battlebridge.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Joshua Nash is a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide, Australia.
His current project involves an analysis of the Norf’k language of Norfolk
Island, South Pacific, from an ecolinguistic perspective and in particular
the history of placenaming on the island. He has worked with Danish
linguists Jørgen Bang, Jørgen Døør and Sune Vork Steffensen in developing
their theory and practice of Dialectical Linguistics and has a great
interest in the languages of India.