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Language competence, identity construction and discursive boundary-making: Distancing and alignment in domestic migrant worker narratives

Hans J. Ladegaard

Abstract

Many people in developing countries are faced with a dilemma. If they stay at home, their children are kept in poverty with no prospects of a better future; if they become migrant workers, they will suffer long-term separation from their families. This article focuses on one of the weakest groups in the global economy: domestic migrant workers. It draws on a corpus of more than 400 narratives recorded at a church shelter in Hong Kong and among migrant worker returnees in rural Indonesia and the Philippines. In sharing sessions, migrant women share their experiences of working for abusive employers, and the article analyses how language is used to include and exclude. The women tell how their employers construct them as “incompetent” and “stupid” because they do not speak Chinese. However, faced by repression and marginalisation, the women use their superior English language skills to get back at their employers and momentarily gain the upper hand. Drawing on ideologies of language as the theoretical concept, the article provides a discourse analysis of selected excerpts focusing on language competence and identity construction.

Acknowledgements

The research reported in this article was supported by two competitive research grants from the University Grants Committee of Hong Kong; grant numbers HKBU-244211 and PolyU-2444/13H.

Appendix: Transcription conventions

Boldpronounced with stress/emphasis
ItalicsTagalog/Bahasa/Janavese/Cantonese
[it’s a]word(s) inserted by the transcriber to ease comprehension
,short pause, less than 0.5 second
(2.0)pause in seconds
‘give me that’reporting direct speech
: (as in ah:)the vowel sound is prolonged
Xxincomprehensible
//interruption
//as I said//overlapping speech
?question/rising intonation
[…]turn(s) left out

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

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