I recently read the book, Tongue Tied by Otto Santa Ana, and it got me thinking about the value of languages. My main argument for mother tongue instruction in schools has always been to include the marginalized: English hegemony in education perpetuates social inequalities as it allows for only an Anglophone, educated elite to participate in decision-making. What I have considered less, however, is the potential for languages to express emotions. It’s not all about gaining access to political power, but also about being free to structuralize your emotions in a language that flows freely from your mind. Art, after all, is an essential part of being human, and I believe that when people are unable to express themselves and develop emotionally, they become aggressive and more prone to hate. (Hatred, as I see it, is not an essential human trait, but rather something that comes about when we are not equipped to deal with something unknown/foreign.) Can the preservation of languages— and the fostering of multi-lingualism in society— help build a more creative, open-minded, compassionate society?
It’s not all about gaining access to political power, but also about being free to structuralize your emotions in a language that flows freely from your mind
In Norway we have two official languages (in addition to the indigenous Sami language): Bokmål (which is my mother tongue) and Nynorsk. We all need to learn both languages, and I will happily admit that I did not always see the point. I hated learning the grammar and spelling of Nynorsk, and I found reading it incredibly frustrating.
My teachers explained that there was culture and national heritage in Nynorsk: there were poems, songs and myths that could not be translated without losing some of its meaning. I eventually came to think of Bokmål as the language of the modern; the educated; the business people, while Nynorsk was the language of poetry; of a mythical past; of the wild nature.
By including this “primitive” language in schools, the Norwegian government gave it status: they legitimized it
It’s a rhythm in Nynorsk that you just can’t translate. When William Labov (2004) talks about Black English vernacular (BEV), I am reminded of my view of Nynorsk growing up. The teachers Labov (2004) describes, heard “the primitive mentality of the savage mind” (p. 148) in BEV. So why did I not hear the same in Nynorks texts and speech? After all, the language is cruder, simpler, more direct, more rhythmic. But by including this “primitive” language in schools, the Norwegian government gave it status: they legitimized it (even though they don’t have as many noun cases or verb conjugations). Yes, I found it frustrating to study, but I never once thought of Nynorsk (or its users) as less worth than me. I though of Nynorsk as the language of farmers, fishermen, the “pride of our nation”, the traditional Norwegians, the Vikings. I did think of it as simple, but not as inferior. I thought of it as raw and direct, but nonetheless beautiful and honest. Could this ever be achieved with BEV/ Ebonics? Could we ever see past the “simplicity” in the BEV dialect, and accept it as another form of English?
How would Black inner-city children develop if Black English Vernacular was not considered inferior, bad, or “criminal”, but rather recognized as the language of honest, working class Americans?
Simon Ortiz (2004) reflects on the relationship between Spanish and English, stating that, “human cultures are different from each other, and unique, and we have different and unique languages; it is not easy to translate form one language to another” (p. 41). Any bi-/multilingual person will agree with me that we are different people when we use different languages. There are things I simply can’t express in English. My tone of voice changes. There is a certain cultural understanding (and bias) in a language’s idioms and expressions, and those cannot be translated. What would happen if children were allowed to learn in a language they truly understood? Or how would Black inner-city children develop if BEV was not considered inferior, bad, or “criminal”, but rather recognized as the language of honest, working class Americans?
Labov, W. (2004). Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence. In Ana, O.S. (Ed.) Tongue Tied: The Lives of Multilingual Children in Public Education; pp. 134-151.
Ortiz, S. (2004). Language and Consciousness, In Ana, O.S. (Ed.) Tongue Tied: The Lives of Multilingual Children in Public Education; pp. 40-47.