Republica Repost–Politics of Language

The phrase “politics of language” is all too familiar, even saturated in our society. But let me situate it in the educational context where the “political” part is rarely acknowledged. All the way from primary school (when children bring home joy when they speak in English words and sentences!) to the university (where even the national language, Nepali, is getting displaced by an all-powerful global language), language carries power. That power extends to the professions, and to society and culture as a whole. So, when someone says, for instance, that Nepali language is a shared language among all Nepali citizens, that is as much a statement of interest and ideology as it is of a fact. Or when someone says that learning English increases your opportunity in the professions, that’s not only a statement of fact (at least to a considerable extent) but also an act of embracing an ideology.

Learning a more common, more powerful language often increases one’s professional opportunities. So, for instance, good English language skills will help you go abroad for study or work, to adapt and succeed, and to be more of a global citizen. But when you choose the above examples and offer the above reasoning, you are also presenting/accepting a vision of the world where success is defined by going abroad, by speaking a dominant world language, and so on.

Instead, if you argue that there should be a limit to our English language craze, that we should make sure that our children have the fundamental right to learn in their first language (such as Newari, Maithili, and Gurung), that there are many contexts and professions across the nation where English is optional/unnecessary, then you’ve considered a different set of reasoning altogether. Arguments on both sides are valid. And the same is also true in case of Nepali. We can argue that all education, from sishu grade to the university, must be conducted in Nepali and Khas Nepali only; we can argue that elementary education should be provided in local languages, adding some Nepali and gradually English to the mix; or we can argue that Nepali and other local languages must be banned from all classrooms.

There is no need to pretend that any of the above positions are based on fact, reality, or practical reasons. Unfortunately, many of us continue to marshal “facts” in favor of whatever we consider is beneficial, practical, reasonable, etc. Beneficial to whom? Practical in what terms? Reasonable within what ideological framing? Whether we discuss a given language as a medium of instruction, as a purveyor of opportunity, as a means of social and cultural connection, as a necessary tool for proper functioning of social institutions, and as a symbol of national identity or global citizenship, we’re dealing with an inherently political phenomenon. It is time that at least our educators acknowledge the ideological nature of our discourse about language.

We need to do the above even when the discussion is not in our favor, even when it is uncomfortable. Last time I wrote on this subject, someone responded that I was being hypocritical (because I am sending my own children to English medium schools here in New York). Just consider the commenter’s selection of “evidence”: he wouldn’t imagine that I am frightened by the prospect of having my children gradually become monolingual English speakers. He instead chose to put words in my mouth and claim that I was saying, “Look, I’ve achieved a degree of English, but you don’t need to.” In reality, I realize the irony of writing to critique our absurd English craze in English myself.

Yes, I am struggling on multilingualism while doing most of my writing in one language. But, no, I wouldn’t tell anyone to not learn English: I wish that everyone spoke English and Japanese and Chinese and many more languages (especially those bearing political power and cultural capital) fluently—while also being able to learn, teach, work, and live with their own local languages. We should defend effective teaching against the onslaught of absurd monolingual standards, foster multilingualism among our children, expose the hollowness of the argument that English (or even Nepali) alone will benefit everyone, and promote more nuanced views about language and the politics of it.

Why does it matter we acknowledge that language is a vehicle of power, an ideological phenomenon, a political tool? Because when we do so, we realize that our positions are not neutral, that we are exerting social/cultural and other forms of power through what we say about and do with language, that a vast majority of people can’t simply adopt/learn a new language just because it is “beneficial,” that languages reshape the content of education and the identity of the learner and the effectiveness of learning and the success or otherwise of many of our teachers.

So, when we “require” a Tamang math teacher to teach her Tamang-speaking students in Nepali (or English) in her primary school, our assumption that Nepali is our shared national language (or that English is the language of opportunity and global citizenship) is “irrelevant” and stupid at best and dishonest at worst. If the math teacher can explain an algebra problem most effectively in Tamang (and let the Nepali teacher help the students excel in Nepali and the English teacher in English), he should teach in Tamang language, Nepali and English be damned. Unfortunately, we join the ranks of mindless pundits who tirelessly protect and promote Nepali (and increasingly English) at the cost of effective learning. Too many of us, including those who claim to be researchers and scholars of education, conflate and confuse our nationalism and our political leanings with our professionalism, our ideological biases and professional/economic interests with seemingly logical reasoning about language and society.

But who loses in the empire of bogus logic about language? Almost everyone. When we value languages rather than what they do best and when and where, we fail to realize we need competence in different languages for different contexts. We are a multilingual society, and that should be our strength, but we have turned it into a liability. We are not worried that our children cannot speak jharro Nepali, can no longer pick up five or six languages, often have poor skills in both English and Nepali, and don’t speak the other home languages. In many countries where homogenizing forces of nationalism wiped out multilingualism and established monolingualism, social and educational institutions are trying hard to reverse the situation. For example, Europeans and Americans are not only trying to promote multilingualism locally but also increasingly teaching their children Chinese, Spanish, and other foreign languages. We, on the other hand, have created an absurd set of ideology-dripping arguments about language, and we think we’re being pragmatic. In our own sad way, we are victims of own abuse of the politics and power of language.

It’s time to wake up to the great advantage of being a rich multilingual society that we’ve always been and we can always be.

Published in Republica on Oct 15, 2014

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