The Impact of Global English in Xinjiang, China: Linguistic Capital and Identity Negotiation among the Ethnic Minority and Han Chinese Students
My dissertation is an ethnographic study of the language politics and practices of college-age English language learners in Xinjiang at the historical juncture of China’s capitalist development. In Xinjiang the international lingua franca English, the national official language Mandarin Chinese, and major Turkic languages such as Uyghur and Kazakh interact and compete for linguistic prestige in different social scenarios. The power relations between the Turkic languages, including the Uyghur language, and Mandarin Chinese is one in which minority languages are surrounded by a dominant state language supported through various institutions such as school and mass media. The much greater symbolic capital that the “legitimate language” Mandarin Chinese carries enables its native speakers to have easier access than the native Turkic speakers to jobs in the labor market. Therefore, many Uyghur parents face the dilemma of choosing between maintaining their cultural and linguistic identity and making their children more socioeconomically mobile. The entry of the global language English and the recent capitalist development in China has led to English education becoming market-oriented and commodified, which has further complicated the linguistic picture in Xinjiang. Despite the fact that the majority of the Turkic speaking students did not start their English education until college due to the language policy that requires them to learn Mandarin Chinese first, they do better in spoken English than their Han Chinese counterparts who probably have learned English for a much longer time. Uyghur students frequently stood out as the champions in various English-speaking contests at the provincial and national levels and became the enviable idols to emulate and symbols of ethnic pride for fellow Uyghur students. Their success has in turn boosted the business of the Uyghur-run private English training centers in Xinjiang. English seems to have become a “counter-hegemonic” language to the dominant national language Mandarin Chinese. Proficiency in the English language has not only granted Uyghurs access to jobs in the private sector, but also symbolic prestige through outdoing the Han Chinese students. However, Turkic-speaking students’ pursuit of the symbolic power of the English language is often interrupted by political events and changing state policies in Xinjiang. Furthermore, although the private English education market provides a safe learning space for Turkic students, it is a raced, classed and gendered site to which not everyone has equal access.
- Anthropology