Language in Education: Part II

I was tempted to change the title of this post (and the last) to Minority Languages in Education but that would be inaccurate. Some students that belong to minority groups in their communities are educated in a language they don’t speak at home. This is the case of Curds in Denmark, Pakistanis in Kuwait and Brazilians in Japan. This is not the case, however, of millions of kids in Africa, virtually all of the kids in Haiti, or even of the upper-class kids who go to private English schools all over the world. These young students speak their native language at home, in the market, on the playground and pretty much everywhere else but in the classroom. In my last post I delved into the advantages and problems related to educating children in a language other than their native one. I am grateful for those who weighed in on the issue in the comments section.

The Good News

It is almost impossible for one group to take away another group’s linguistic identity. The only way your linguistic identity will be lost is if you allow it to be lost or pushed out. A long time ago, Americans tried very hard to squash the languages of the natives. Certain languages have been lost or will be lost soon but others came out of the experience stronger than before. You couldn’t teach Cherokee in school two hundred years ago because it wasn’t a written language. Now it is. Navaho is not only now a written language but can be used to give university lectures. The Welsh, Ukrainians, Norwegians, Basque, and even the English have all had their languages seriously threatened at one time or another. If you are willing to fight for it, no individual or government can rob you of your language completely.

As I said in my last post, this situation is a sticky one and there is no one size fits all answer but there are three principles that can guide every society facing this problem.

Principle #1: You Need to Want It

In order for this to work then the group that wants to promote its language needs a very strong sense of self-determination. If Xhosa speaking parents organize, come together, and say they want their children to receive instruction in Xhosa then I think the government should provide at least a few classes and activities in the language for them. Books should also be provided for Xhosa speakers at the library. If the Xhosa classes are enthusiastically received, if there is a very high level of participation in Xhosa activities, and if there is a long waiting list for Xhosa books at the library then I think the government should expand Xhosa services. They could perhaps even allow for schools to teach half in Xhosa and half in English.

Principle #2: You Need to Want It More Than Me

I often go to the Spanish language book section at my library. Do you know which people I don’t really see much in the Spanish language section? Hispanics. You can’t expect your language to thrive if you aren’t really enthusiastic about it. Especially in this economy, why should one group vote to allocate funds to support a different ethno-linguistic group if the members of the latter group aren’t going to make really good use of the money?

Principle #3: Think Win/Win

Many people approach language with a very Win/Lose mentality. If you speak my language then you can’t speak yours. Continuing with that logic these same people often think, If you speak your language then you cannot speak mine. When trying to push a language in schools it helps to assure others that the students will continue to learn English, or whatever other language they need to learn in order to function in a broader society. This requires some extra effort and a change in lifestyle that many do not expect. This is where principles one and two become very important.

This Can Really Work

When the Persians took over the Babylonian Empire they kept Aramaic as the language of government. Everybody already knew Aramaic so why should they try and fix something that wasn’t broken? Many languages coexisted side by side but it was understood that the official language was Aramaic. This is the way Greek functioned for centuries in the Mediterranean countries and Latin in much of Europe during the Middle Ages. Just like the ancients, I believe people in modern times can learn a vehicular language, like English, without losing their own ethno-linguistic identity.


4 Responses

  1. I completely agree with what you said about the inability to really exterminate a language, the only way languages go extinct is if the people who speak do or they decide they want to let it go extinct. You can’t really hurt one language or force its extinction simply by encouraging another, I hate that B.S. and usually see it used when it comes to the popularity of English as a second language throughout the world and how kids are being “forced” to learn it in school and then of course you have people saying that doing this harms their native language and we shouldn’t be doing that or some such nonsense.


    • Thanks for your comment Andrew. I believe that human beings are more powerful than they realize. I think that people who are proud of their roots and embrace the best that their culture has to offer are in a great position to have full and rich lives. I went to a couple of (bloodless) Portuguese bullfights in California last year. I was shocked and impressed at how most everyone around me, in a tiny town in Central California, was speaking in Portuguese. These immigrants from the Azores have kept their culture very much alive for decades and I think it’s really cool. I learned a lot about the importance of community, traditions, language, culture and religious rites.

      I think that many people who feel kids are being “forced” to learn English (Chinese, Spanish, French, etc.) suffer from a victim’s mentality. Instead of learning another language being an enriching experience it is viewed as a zero-sum situation. If my kids like songs in English they will not like songs in Swahili. It doesn’t need to be that way and people can do something about it if they want to. If they want to, they can teach their children good things about their ethno-linguistic heritage. They can help their children feel good about speaking Xhosa, Spanish, Turkish, etc. It may take some creativity and effort but people don’t have to be victims if they don’t want to be.

  2. What about Africans brought to the Americas as slaves. They were systematically robbed of native languages and cultures by stripping them of their families and those with whom they shared a common culture. The were forbidden to practice their customs and even religions.

    Native American children were separated from their families and forced to learn white culture and English. If their families were not around to teach the their native languages, hasn’t their language effectively been stolen along with their culture?

    I would have to disagree with the premise that language can only be taken away. Many peoples have had their languages stolen by oppressive peoples.

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