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“Maid to maiden”: The false promise of English for the daughters of domestic workers in post-colonial Kolkata

Anindita Chatterjee and Anne Schluter

Abstract

Drawing from a larger ethnographic study, the current article examines, through interactional sociolinguistics, interview and observation data related to English-language tutorials between two employers and their domestic workers’ daughters in two households in Kolkata. The post-colonial, South Asian context represents a site in which such scholarship has been underrepresented (see Mills and Mullany’s 2011 Language, gender and feminism). The focus of analysis is two-fold: it evaluates the existing power structures between participants, and it assesses the degree to which widespread Indian discourses about the upward mobility of English (see Graddol’s 2010 “English Next India”, published online by the British Council) are relevant to the current setting. In terms of power structures, legitimated domination (see Grillo’s 1989 Dominant languages) of the employer over her domestic worker emerges as a salient theme; however, affective attachment (adapted from Hardt’s 1999 article “Affective labor”, published in Boundary; McDowell and Dyson’s 2011 article “The other side of the knowledge economy: ‘Reproductive’ employment and affective labours in Oxford”, published in Environment and Planning) and reciprocal dependencies help to both reinforce and diminish the severity of the power asymmetry. With respect to the applicability of popular Indian discourses that equate English-language proficiency with upward mobility, the study finds little evidence of their relevance to the current context in which the subordinate positioning of gender intersects with social class to compound its constraining influence.

Acknowledgements

This research was funded by The Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), New Delhi.

Appendix: Transcription conventions

Boldoriginal words (in English) used by the speakers
Underlinedpronounced with emphasis
?question/rising intonation
.falling intonation

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Published Online: 2020-03-04
Published in Print: 2020-03-26

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