A Critical Ethnography of Myanmar Migrants’ Grassroots Multilingualism at a Chinese Massage Parlour

  •  Zhijuan Ni    


While China is broadening its gateway into South Asia and Southeast Asia, millions of foreign migrant workers cross the border and seek their transnational fortune in China’s border provinces. However, within the existing literature in migrant workers in China, language is rarely a research target in itself. As one of the important social actors language plays a key role shaping migrant workers’ life trajectories. Adopting Spolsky’s language policy theory and following the critical ethnography with migrant workers (Han, 2013; Mathews, 2011), this study explores the interplay of national polices of massage parlour management at a macro level, employers’ stipulations of managing Myanmar migrants at a meso level and Myanmar migrants’ language practices at micro level. Grounded upon critical sociolinguistic ethnography, data is collected from a China’s massage parlour at border town through the participant observation in and out of massage parlour, field notes, semi-structured interviews and documents. The study probes into how Chinese geopolitics of the wider process of regional development facilitates or constrains Myanmar migrants, how they mobilize social resources to expand their multilingual repertoires and how Chinese employer manages Myanmar migrants in language and life aspects. Findings reveal that there is no specific language policy at the recruitment stage. However, when Myanmar migrant workers start to work, language emerges as implicit but powerful medium streaming the likelihood of upward mobility. Other social factors, such as gender, nationality, religion and class also influence their mobility and integration into China’s local society. The study expands the understanding of language management and grassroots multilingualism in the context of globalization from below. Also the study provides implications on language policy making, migrants integration and education for migrants of multilingual backgrounds.

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