On Friday, September 16, 2022, the Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS) welcomed Savithry Namboodiripad, an assistant professor of linguistics at U-M, for a discussion on language boundaries and transnational identities, specifically looking at her study of Malayalees—an ethnolinguistic group originating from the state of Kerala, India—in Minnesota. 

“I want to talk about the factors influencing language maintenance practices, particular to Minnesota and Malayalam,” says Namboordiripad. “This is a first step towards describing these linguistic communities.” 

Rather than focus on the traditional South Asian immigrant groups, this study looks at those who came concurrent with and after the IT boom of the 1990s and the establishment of the H-1 visa. Combining data from 45 oral histories of Minnesotan Malayalees, experimental work conducted in Kerala, and a large-scale survey (in collaboration with Dr. Maya Abtahian from the University of Rochester) investigating language use and linguistic ideologies, Namboordiripad’s study interpreted the language maintenance practices and ideologies of this group.

“Attitudes about linguistic assimilation are potentially modulated by the degree to which one is a visible minority - basically how much they stick out,” adds Namboordiripad. “This changed dramatically for South Asians in Minnesota during this time period.” 

Unlike other areas studied by linguists, there was a relatively sparse South Asian community in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul area until the immigration spike in the 1990s. Namboordiripad reports the number of Malayalees in Minnesota grew from 8234 in 1990 to 40,846 in 2016. There were eight founding families of the community in 1970, and she estimated up to 500 in 2018. 

“We found a trend in that the linguistic patterns of Malayalees in Minnesota run parallel to those in Kerala,” says Namboodiripad. 

They also found positive attitudes about multilingualism, an established community, Indian-English as a home language, and easy connections to family and friends distinguish the experiences of post-IT Malayalees living in Minnesota from those who immigrated before. 

“There was more of a resistance to bilingualism from the first-generation,” she adds. “For many reasons including discrimination and assimilation anxiety, they felt their kids needed to focus on English and, later, regretted that they didn’t speak Malayalam.” 

Namboodiripad notes that continued qualitative, community-based work that is meaningfully informed by approaches and frames across disciplines is necessary to do larger-scale quantitative work.  

Savithry Namboodiripad earned her BA and MA in Linguistics from the University of Chicago, and her PhD in Linguistics from the University of California, San Diego. She has been an assistant professor of Linguistics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, since 2019, following a two-year Collegiate Fellowship. She runs the Contact, Cognition, & Change lab, where her group investigates methodological and theoretical issues relating to how multilingualism shapes how languages change.