Negotiating multiple identities in educational contexts: Stories of Tamil Heritage Language Users as Multilingual Malaysians
Malaysia is a multilingual and multicultural society comprising of ethnic Malays (dominant group) followed by ethnic Chinese, Indians and other indigenous groups. The national language is Malay and English is the second language. Heritage languages such as Mandarin and Tamil are used as the language of instruction in some primary schools. This study explores how a group of Tamil Heritage Language Users from Tamil primary schools (THLU-Ts) at a private university recounted maneuvering through their multilingual world during their early lives at Tamil primary school, at state secondary school (Malay) and then at a private university (English). Nine first year undergraduate participants were selected from a private university in Malaysia where English is the medium of instruction. They were selected as THLU-Ts based on two criteria. Firstly, they were ethnic Tamils and secondly, they had completed six years of primary education at Tamil primary school. I used photovoice interviews to construct their narratives. The participants, prompted by photographs they brought as artefacts, described their language experiences in a multilingual setting. The participants’ voices were storied into narratives based on three narrative inquiry strategies of broadening, burrowing and restorying. Two in-depth interviews were conducted over a six month period and these were video-taped and transcribed. The interview transcript from each first interview contributed to a narrative summary or story. This was a general description of the participant and events (broadening stage). The second interview was held towards the end of the semester. During the second interview, participants were asked to reflect on their narrative summaries (which had been distributed earlier) and comment on them. I sought data to reexamine the existing data (burrowing stage) before rewriting a complete and coherent story (restorying) for each participant. This story was also individually reviewed by each participant. Data analysis was an iterative process that included storying and coding. I identified three broad themes and then examined them in the light of relevant literature. This analysis allowed me to understand how the THLU-Ts shaped their identities during social interactions with different linguistic communities in Malaysia, including THLU-Ms (ethnic Tamils from national primary schools) and non-Tamils (Malays and Chinese). Initially, THLU-Ts faced challenges as they transitioned to secondary school coming from a Tamil- medium primary school. At secondary school, they had to adjust to a Malay linguistic environment for the first time. As their proficiency in Malay grew, they felt they were accepted as authentic members of the academic community. When they entered the English-medium university, there was pressure to develop proficiency in English. They repositioned themselves once again and made deliberate language choices during social interaction with other linguistic communities. When the findings were viewed through Blommaert’s sociolinguistic scales, it was apparent that participants scaled languages depending on the value assigned to each one (Malay, English and Tamil). This reflected the way language was used in society. As powerful multilinguals who invested in a multilingual repertoire, participants displayed linguistic accommodation. These findings suggest a need for educators and policy makers to reassess the role and importance of HL education. Currently, the Malaysian education policy is silent on its commitment to HL education in Malaysia. Yet, this research supports the One Malaysia concept which stresses unity in diversity and encourages educational policies to take a pro-multilingual stance.