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Power of Linguistic Privilege: Critical Discourse Analysis of the Narratives of Pakistani Immigrant Students in American Schools.

Byline: Sadaf Rauf


The paper highlights the struggles that the immigrant students make during the process of learning English as a second language and the ways in which lack of proficiency in English complicates the process of learning and even hinders their academic growth. The major focus are the immigrants from less commonly known cultures and less commonly taught languages, so as to observe the complexity of the situation in a better way. Discourse analysis of the narratives has been done through the close transcription of four Pakistani immigrant students.


Kramsch in her paper Multilingual Subjects (2006) claims that learning a language is likely to re-identify one's self. We totally agree with her and believe that language is the ultimate medium of expression of innermost hopes, aspirations, awareness and conflicts. It is through language that people learn about each other's thoughts, believes, ideologies, expectations, agreements and conflicts. It is through learning about each other that they re-locate themselves with reference to each other. They re-position and reidetify their selves. But all this re-positioning, re-identification and re-location of the selves is possible if people share a common code of communication i.e. share the same language.

But what about those who happen to live with each other but are unable to understand each others' language. The paper talks about the immigrants and particularly the immigrant students from third world countries, from very less commonly known cultures and with the L1 that is very less commonly taught in the countries where they migrate to; for example, Pakistani Students coming to America. After migrating to the other country when these students get to the schools and somehow slip through the language screening tests and are allowed to sit in the class, they find themselves into an entirely new realm. An entirely new realm of English medium school! The school where the teachers teach in English, students talk in English, the books and the handouts are in English, the class room discussion and activities are in English, and the assignments and the examination are in English but these students are not proficient in English.

They can not understand what the teacher talks about; they can not grasp what the students discuss in the class; they can not share their views. Because theydo not have the linguistic privilege; they are not good at English; they are still in the process of learning this language, in the process of re-positioning themselves in this new realm of English medium school. Kramsch (2006) is very right when she talks about the re-identification of self through learning a new language but my argument in this paper is that this process of re-identification of self through learning a new language is not as easy as it seems to be, particularly in the case of immigrant students that we mentioned above. The paper discuses in detail how many times it is during this process of re-identification of self that they feel totally lost only because of being unable to communicate through this new language. O.E. Mandelstshtam said in the Shadow and which (Rieber, R.W and Carton, A.S. 1997). quoted:

I forgot the word that I wanted to say,

And thought unembodied, returns to the hall of shadows

This L2 deficiency , their inability to communicate their thoughts threatens the sense of self these Pakistani immigrant students and brings forth an identity crises hindering their expressions which leaves them feeling lost and 'deterritirialized' (Ramanathan,2006) , and unable to fit in this realm of English medium system of education. The paper highlights the struggle that they make in order to reach this exalted state of being bilingual. Paper also talks about the most interesting fact that how all these fears and threats become a source of motivation for learning English as they start to fight back for their survival and alignment in this totally new linguistic and educational context.

The paper mainly talks about these major themes:

* language as an agent of power

* identity reconstruction through language

* language socialization

What is Linguistic privilege?

By Linguistic Privilege, in this paper we mean, having the privilege of being proficient in the language of instruction, the language of the text taught, and the content delivered and the language of the communication occurred in the discourse of teaching and learning.

Being 'proficient in the language' here means to be able to comprehend the underlying hidden meanings of the text as well as having the ability to express one's own ideas and complex thoughts clearly and unambiguously.

Previous Scholarship:

In her paper "Of Texts AND Translations AND Rhizomes" ( Ramanathan, 2006) the author presents her belief that as language stems out of culture, translating text from one language to another is in fact translating the text from one culture to another. The attempt to translate text from one culture to another is likely to uproot and de-territorialize the text from its roots which later on keeps on floating like a rhizome, and remains unable to fix itself anywhere as there is always a certain 'empty- sapciness' between the languages and the cultures hence no culture and no language on earth could ever be exactly like the other .

Totally agreeing with her point of view, the question here is, what about the flesh and blood human beings (immigrant students) who migrate from one country to another, from one culture to another entirely different culture and from one linguistic and social context to another. What are the problems that these students face in the schools because of the lack of proficiency in English.

In her paper" Multilingual Subjects" Kramsch (2006) quotes an Arabic Allegory by Kilto(1994) in order to point to the identity crises that language learner faces. She compares second language learner to a Bedouin who when loses his way at night in the desert: barks like a dog to find out signs of the human habitation. The Bedouin has to first dehumanize himself; compromise on his identity for the time being in order to relocate himself among other human beings. Similarly the process of learning a new language can be insultingly painful and a threat to the learner's core identity and his sense of self but at the same time the successful learning of the language can take the learner to the exalted state of Bilingualism or Multilingualism with multiple identities and a greater sense of self accomplishment.

Linda Harklau in her article, "ESL Versus Mainstream Classes: Contrasting L2 Learning Environments" also discusses the problems that immigrant students face in mainstream classes. In her article she clearly says, "in most of their school experience, students faced an overwhelming monolingual environment, where expressions of their native language and culture, if not actively discouraged were certainly not encouraged."(Harklau, 1994)

In her paper "Windows to Our Classrooms" Carol Halbe (2005) brings forward a case study of an Indian student in a comprehensive high school in California. The author describes how that learner was painfully conscious of her limited English proficiency; hence she never talked in the class so as to avoid any embarrassing episode and was actually afraid of being made fun of by their classmates. The author also talks about the pity that the teachers felt for her but could not do much to resolve the situation.

This paper, the power of linguistic Privilege actually talks about the problems students face in their studies due to the lack of proficiency in English language.

Rational of the Paper:

Being bilingual is definitely a great privilege but my rational in this paper is to highlight the struggles that non-native speakers of English have to make in order to reach this privileged and exalted state of being bilingual. The purpose of the paper is to appreciate and acknowledge the pains second language learners face during the process of language acquisition, particularly in cases where second language is actually the medium of instruction in the schools they attend. So, through Critical discourse analysis, paper examines the ways in which language exerts its power on the immigrant language learners, the role that language plays in the identity reconstruction of these learners and their socializing in the school.

Why Pakistani Students?

Much has already been talked about language, identity and power but nothing in particular has been said about Pakistani immigrant students who come from a greatly different cultural, social, economical and religious set-up. All these things together make language learning a difficult task. Pakistani students are different from others as in their case the culture and social set-up is deeply inter-twinned with religion and has its deep reflection over the language e.g. the way to talk with adults, superiors, betters, strangers, family members etc. What type of vocabulary to use, what should be the preferred tone, pitch, volume and what type of grammatical constructions to be used in a particular condition? Keeping this entire media propaganda aside, if we have a look at the true picture of Pakistan, things are much different.

It's not the topic here to discuss whether or not good but there are different social roles assigned to individuals with reference to gender, social relation and social positioning that has its reflection on the language. For example, the way men and women talk are different from each other. The tone, the pitch, the vocabulary civilized females should use is definitely much more refined and polite than the one that the males usually use. The way a female talks to another female or her family members is different from the way she talks to a male or a stranger .The same is with the males, the way they talk with , for, and/or in front of a female is definitely different than the way they talk to, for and/ in front of another male.

Most of it is because of the respect religion has bestowed to a female. Let me bring an example to clarify my point in a better way. When my aged, grey haired, Post PhD, Pakistani boss talks to me, who is a quite young, just a graduate student and Pakistani female-he uses the second person pronoun 'AAP' specially meant to show deference or respect (Otherwise, the pronoun used for a second person singular is 'TUM'); irrespect of the age difference, seniority in experience, education and rank he gives me respect only because I am a female.

The only reason to bring these examples here is just to tell how different and difficult it is for Pakistani immigrant students to come out of L1 influence and learn English that has quiet contradictory stylistics from Urdu( the national language of Pakistan).


The major focus of the paper is to study the relation between language, identity and power and its effects on the second language learners of English in particular; Critical Discourse Analysis of the oral interviews has been used as the key methodology for my study as it is the only approach that best deals with the language, identity and power relations.

Frame work

Language Socialization is the frame work for this paper where we analyze the students' narratives, through close transcription, both for socialization with language and socialization through language themes. It is only by the virtue of being proficient enough in the target language that the learner can socialize with the people in that particular society. In case of the subjects of this study in the high schools of America, where the medium of instruction is English, these students could socialize neither with the teachers nor with the class fellows not even with the text books or the other material used for teaching in the class room only because they were not good at English not good enough to communicate and comprehend the speech made in English.

These students were unable to socialize with the language because of many reasons, the most important out of which remains the lack of familiarity with American society and its culture which in itself is a mix amalgam of many other cultures and has influences of many other societies on it. As the language stems out of culture, it is difficult to get a real command over language without knowing its cultural norms, values and traditions. The other important factor was weak command over the rules and conventions of English language use.

Identity reconstruction is another frame work for my paper, where I transcribe this data so as to closely observe the role of language in identity destruction and re-construction. As these students could not voice their ideas and show their knowledge in the class they could not get them selves identified among others as knowledgeable beings. It was through learning English that they gradually started taking part in the class discussions and activities and proved their presence and identified their knowledge in the class.


The data for the paper comprises Eight hours and twenty two minutes long audio interviews of the three Pakistani students who moved to U.S. after completing tenth grade in Pakistan and got admission in the high schools of California. I collected this data for another paper in October and November 2007. Here, I am using almost the same field notes that I took for that class.

Three Pakistani immigrant students named Sana, Rahat and Sara (pseudo names) have been interviewed for this research. All three young women are undergraduate students in a university of Northern California and preparing for their admission to medical school. Rahat and Sara migrated here with their families after completing 10th grade in Pakistan and got admission in high school in California but Sana, had started her college in Pakistan that she left after a few months because of her migration to America. Here she completed her high school diploma from an adults' school, as she had to work full time during the day and save money for her further study and to support her family. The other two had enough financial support from the family and did not have to work. Their only responsibility was going to high school and studying. All three of them belonged to underdeveloped cities of Pakistan and are genuine products of widely prevailing vernacular medium of education

in Pakistan.

Rahat was 16 when she came here in 2000, Sana was almost 17 and she also came in 2000, while Sarah was 17 when she moved to America in 1999. None of them had ever spoken even a single full English sentence of their own in their schools in Pakistan although Sara, could speak only a few phrases or words but not full sentences. This is because she completed 10th grade from a better so-called English-medium school. All three young women had been quite, successful students until 10th grade and had never had any problems worth-mentioning in following the class room proceedings or in interacting with their class mates in Pakistan.

Sana and Sara were familiar with basic rules of English grammar and hence could write some very basic level sentences while Rahat had never had the chance to write anything of her own. The system of English language examination they were exposed to in Pakistan, was basically grammar translation based where basic emphasis was on translating from English to Urdu and, particularly in their situation, reproduction of already memorized material. It is worth mentioning her that Sara and Sana were slightly better in writing only because, according to them, their teachers had slightly better command and personal interest in teaching grammar.

None of them had ever had any practical support from their parents in learning English, except for moral support, as the parents themselves were not proficient in English. The elder siblings however, helped them practicing speaking English as they were a bit better in speaking English only because of being in America roughly a year earlier than these women. In fact none of these three families migrated all together rather some of the member shifted a year or two before the others and then the rest of the family moved in.

The rationale behind choosing these girls to interview was not just their willingness, but also their eagerness to share their experiences and stories of struggle. Secondly, there are not many Pakistani immigrants here in California who migrated after completing their 10th grade in Pakistan and continued high school in America. Selection of these girls helped as they have recently passed through this whole phase of basic education (till 10th grade) in Pakistan, high school and college in California and are now completing their undergrad at university hence could better talk about their experiences in high school and compare it with their present state at school after having learnt the language to some extent. The reason for having completed 10th grade in Pakistan is that this is the point here secondary schooling finishes in Pakistan and the college starts, so transition in American high school at this point is a really fantastic turning point.

The answer to why I preferred high school students over college students for this study is that, high school is a place where students are not really mature, they poke into each others' businesses and easily get effected, influenced and disturbed by their peers while college students are relatively mature in their attitude .This selection favors as it beautifully brings forward the process of second language development under the influence of society. I did not intentionally choose younger children because they might not be as expressive as the elder students are. Time constraint did not allow for any prolonged cross-sectional study or observation to be directly conducted in high school

The data are comprised of audio recordings of their interviews. The recordings were made in two sessions; in Sara and Rahat's case, the first session was 25 minutes and the second session was 15 miutes minutes each while Sana's interview prolonged to 1 hour and 10 minutes (two sessions first for 55 minutes and the second for 15minutes) because of her personal desire to share as much of her experience as possible. I preferred interviewing over questionnaire or any other techniques as it brings forward the true thoughts and the deeper expressions of the interviewees. The women were given full freedom to use either Urdu or English, or even they could switch between the languages so that the deepest and uninterrupted expression could be brought forward.

Identity Reconstruction and Language as an agent of power:


The extract below is from Sarah's interview and answer to my question to her regarding the problems that she had to face in high school due to the lack of proficiency in English.

I selected this chunk as it explicitly tells how language played its powerful role in the academic lives of the immigrant students. Being less proficient in the target language, she not only felt insecure but also found herself inferior and behind in studies than other class fellows. Her actual identity of being a knowledgeable and committed learner was lost and she was in great psychological stress. The data very explicitly tells that language has the power to make some one feel comfortable, confident and secure. Depravity from this linguistic privilege can cause fear, inferiority complex, a feeling of being lost, unidentified and insecure.

The data shows an interesting pattern of falling tones, pauses, fillers like 'umh' and 'so' and the extensive use of the pet word 'like' . The close examination of data shows that all these elements add to the meanings of the context as they high light the intensity of pain in recalling all those memories.

None of these pauses or fillers shows that she is reluctant in conveying her message rather she is constantly in a struggle to find out appropriate words to embody her thoughts and encode her sufferings . The use of word 'scared' in line number 1 and 11 is a proof of this notion. At both these places, she stresses the word 'scared' the most ; also in line 11 the use of adverb 'really' adds to the intensity if fear.

Her constant effort to search for the appropriate words is very clear in line number 7 where she switches her code and brings an Urdu equivalent of inferiority complex i.e 'ihsas kamtri' to make her point more explicit. The stressed pronouns 'that' in line number 9 and 'this' in line number 10 also add to the intensity of "ihsas kamtri". In line number 7, use of pronoun 'me' with a very strong stress, emphasizes her as being the one subjected to this 'ihsaas kamtri'.

The quickening pace of the phrase in line number 13 where she mentions about her teachers' wish to come in front, points to her unease in discussing the unpleasing event ; apparently she wants to expedite with this memory. Stress on 'could not' and 'do it' in line number 14 tells how painful it was for her to be un able to come in front of class.

Lack of Linguistic privilege: Language the gate keeper of Knowledge

In line 23 there is a rising tone after a pause. This rising tone tells that there is abruptness and strength in her expression. The use of elongated vowel and the high pitch with stress on word 'tension 'in line number 24 'lo:t of tensions' explicates the intensity of tension that she faced in school because of the lack of language deficiency. Her helplessness to do her assignment in English is evident from stress on 'have to' and 'English' in line number 26.Line 26 further explains the reason for her helplessness where she tells that she could not even understand the instructions. The use of pronoun 'you' seems to be made purposefully so as to bring in generality and reducing the personal effect so as to avoid the pain and embarrassment but the inability to do the assignment is clear by the use of word can:t with elongated vowel , a stress and high pitch in line number 27.

The prominent features of her talk are falling tones and exhalations. It seems as if recalling the problems that she faced made her stressful. It is in line number 28 that she takes a pause as if composing herself to say something difficult and then exhales after this exhalation there is a pause for two seconds and then she says 'so' with a long vowel as summing up and then talks about the process of doing her home work that it was really hard with a strong stress and high pitch (in line number 29). In line number 30 she further explains what was hard for her i.e. 'to do' with an exhalation then she takes a pause for a second and with a higher pitch and stress she tells that doing a sma:ll project or a home work assignment was difficult for her to do. 'Small' in line number 32 is with an elongated vowel meaning that a project that could be even minor for others was difficult for her to do.

If we look at the overall choice of vocabulary words like tension, hard, difficult, have to and cant have been used that give an overall impression of difficulty and pain. Use of adjective 'lot' and the adverb 'hard' with prominent stresses strengthens the sense of difficulty and struggle to overcome the situation.

Overall the extract gives a sense of great struggle and unease in the process of learning because of the lack of proficiency in English language. It seems as English is the gate keeper that does not let the learner get into the door of knowledge unless the learner socializes with the language and gets a good command over it.


This chunk has been taken from Sana's interview where she talks about the language difference being the greatest problem for her .Here she is answering to my question when I asked her about the major problem in language learning.

In line 37 there is very quick and abrupt pace as after thinking she at once got a right answer and was in a hurry to tell. The repetition of the same utterance with the addition of word 'difference' in line number 38 tells that there is no doubt in language being the cause of problem in school. The repetition with the addition of word 'difference' tells that it is the difference between this learner's first language and the language of instruction that caused the real problems. The slight laughter after line number 37 and 38 talks as if she feels embarrassed while mentioning this deficiency and trying to cover this feeling through her laughter. Line number 39 and 40 serve to complete her thought that she could not understand English really. Stress on 'could not' emphasizes her in ability to understand the language.

Here in the same line, she uses the word 'English' just to name the language and clarify that it was this particular language that differed from her language and that she was unable to 'understand' it. The prominent stress on 'understand', 'really' and 'at all' puts more emphasis in the meaning whereas elongated vowel in 'ata:ll' adds to the totality of the lack of comprehension. Elongated pronoun 'I:' in line 41 gives the personalized feeling that she felt herself the only one passing through that crisis . A very strong stress on 'struggle hard' and the elongated vowel in 'ha:rd' in the same line really brings a powerful expression to shows degree of difficulty that she had to face in her struggle. Stress on 'work hard' in line number 42 also conveys the same effect.

The quickening pace in line number 46 simply refers that wanted to quickly finish with that memory and did not want to make it prominent but more stress on 'most of the stuff' brings forward the fact that a greater part of the lectures was beyond her understanding. The slow pace with again and again brings the sense of lengthened process and a feeling of delay and continuity in the struggle that she had to make to go to her teachers' office hours. Explanation of the same point in line 51 seems to be an effort to make the fact clear that she was unable to understand even the key points of the lecture.

The overall choice of vocabulary like the words 'really hard', 'struggle a lot', 'could not understand at all', 'again and again' and 'most of the stuff' brings an overall impression of difficult situation and great struggle. The analysis explicates that there is no getting around the fact that her language deficiency caused great problems for her learning the other subjects in the school and she had to put great time and effort, first of all to understand the teachers' talk , her word and all what she wanted to say. Round the whole analysis we never find witness that she had any problem with the actual content or the subject matter rather it was always actually the language of the content taught that hindered her approach and understanding of the real subject matter . She never talks about the difficulty of the content matter which means either the content in itself was familiar to her or was under the grasp of her understanding but it was actually the language that did not let her understand it.

The immediate utterance of 'no' right after the question finished is quiet meaningful here.This abruptness for 'no' with a high pitch and rising tone and then repetition of the and explanation of the same point in the next line with a greater stress and volume proves the fact that even after attending the office hours , not every thing was clear to her. Use of elongated vowels in 'bu:t' and 'I': and the two second pause before umh and then a one second pause in line number 56 reflect her thinking process. The quickening pace in less than less than listening to the stuff greater than greater than line number 56 seems just to manage the time that she has already spend in thinking the earlier part of the utterance. There is stress and high volume for second time tells that it was clear only because she was listening to it the second time. The greater emphasis on it made more sense in line number 57 conveys as it was really important for her that the text made at least some sense.

There is an excitement in the voice that could be seen through the high pitch; this could be an excitement of getting some achievement. The elongated vowel in no:t in line number 58 and the stress on hundred percent clear are meaningful in a sense that even after spending so much time she was unable to get hundred percent meaning out of it. A slight laughter after this explanation seems to be a sort of self consciousness, embarrassment or hesitation for not being able to get every thing even after so much effort. The use of pronoun 'that' in line number 60 refers back to 'second time'. The elongated vowel of even in line number 60 is also meaningful as it makes the comparison more clear that even after spending time in office hour and making this extra effort things were not as clear as they were to the other class fellows.

In this chunk she makes a claim that the extract made more sense but a disclaimer comes by the end that conveys that this achievement of getting the meaning was not hundred percent. There was still some thing missing.


The analysis of the close transcripts from the data clearly brings forward the power and identity relation with the language. Language exercises its power on the individual under its direct effect. Most closely affected of this power are those who are beginners in this process of learning the language. All the three girls interviewed for this paper were at the beginning stage of this language learning. If we closely observe the transcripts, it is evident that none of the speakers say that the content taught was difficult for them rather the only thing that hindered their approach to the knowledge taught and the content delivered was their language deficiency. They had to spend a considerable amount of time to understand the language of the lecture before they could actually start thinking what was the actual theme of the lecture or the other technicalities explained in it.

Now, a student who does not completely understand the topic of discussion going on in the class, how come that we expect him to participate in the discussion and prove his knowledge . This disability of the non-native speaker to participate in the discussion puts a mask of ignorance on his knowledgeable face and hiding his real identity of a committed ,knowledgeable, hardworking individual hence positions him as a passive scared and unconfident participant of the class who does not even comprehend all what is going on in the class. Whereas, the native speakers do not have any such problem, they have the privilege of knowing the mother tongue.

Language is the means of communication; it is by the virtue of being proficient in a language that a successful communication between the individuals takes place. As these immigrant speakers are self conscious of their language deficiency, they hesitate to communicate with the others consequently, they feel left alone and helpless in this process of language learning. We by no means want to claim that language learning is any negative process; these are the different roles that language plays in different situations. It is only after having acquired enough proficiency in language that these speakers are able to communicate confidently and communicate their past experiences with us. Language has the power that makes a learner confident and successful.

It is after having passed through all the pains, sufferings and timely de-constructions that these students reach the exalted state of being bilingual with an ability to look at the different perspectives of the world around and having a multidimensional vision which a monolingual speaker can never enjoy. But there is greater need to some how lessen this pain and help these student come over this pain as soon as possible because not every learner has that dauntless courage and the unflinching determination to keep struggling in the dark alley of which apparently there is no opening. It is thus required that the high school teachers pay special attention to these non native speakers in their class ; while planning the lecture they should keep this factor in the mind that there might be an improficient learner sitting at the back of the class fighting with his own language insufficiency and trying to re-construct his lost identity .

Linda Harkla (1994)suggests that ESL teaching should be improvedso as to address the language requirements of these immigrant students and also certain changes should be brought into the mainstream classroom setting, where the teacher needs to remember that an integral part of the class is the immigrant student who is sitting somewhere very silent and passive fighting with his language deficiency. Syllabus designers should keep space for these learners in the curriculum and most of all the ESL classes need to be really effective to make these students proficient enough to communicate before they actually join the mainstream classes.


* Watson-Gegeo. (2004). Mind, Language, and Epistemology: Towards a Language Socialization Paradigm for SLA .The Modern Language Journal, 88.

* Halbe,C. (2005). Ask the Students: Students perspective on the Academia and Social progress of English Learners. Windows in our classrooms. Davis, California:CRESS Centre.

* Ramanathan,V.(2006).Of Texts and Translations and Rhizomes postcolonial anxieties and deracinations and knowledge constructions.Critical inquiry of language studies : An International Journal.vol .3, No.4.

* Kramsch , C.(2006). The Multilingual Subjects. International Journal of Applied Linguistics . vol .16, No.1.

* Harklau,L. (1994). ESL Versus Mainstream Classes: Contrasting L2c Learning

* Environments. TESOL Quarterly.vol.28,No.2.Summer.

* Peirce, B. (1995). Social Identity, Investment, and Language Learning. TESOL Quarterly.vol.29,No.1,spring,
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Author:Rauf, Sadaf
Publication:International Journal of Arts and Humanities
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Dec 31, 2010
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