Tongue Tied Reflections and Black English Vernacular

I recently read the bookTongue Tied by Otto Santa Anaand 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?

References:

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.

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Does the spread of English necessarily lead to the displacement of local languages and cultural identities?

Many of the concerns related to the “take-over” of English language across the world, is related to the perceived negative impact this will have on local cultures and languages. I feel this panic is unconstructive — even harmful — to the preservation of local culture.

English will continue to spread, as will Western culture. Trying to stop it will only result in a failure to come up with real solutions: it will misdirect our efforts. We must find a way to combine the use of English with our local language. We must find a way to combine and appreciate the mixing of local culture and foreign influences (whether this be American influence in Africa, or maybe Arabic influence in Europe).

English will continue to spread, as will Western culture. Trying to stop it will only result in a failure to come up with real solutions: it will misdirect our efforts. We must find a way to combine the use of English with our local language.

Phillipson (1992) and Crystal (2003) often refer to Scandinavia when deliberating on the power of English in displacing local languages. This is true. We do see a lot more English in tertiary education in Scandinavia, especially as most textbooks, Internet sites, and research papers are written in English. I do want to underline, however, that primary and secondary school is entirely in the local language, as is any governmental institution.

The introduction on English does not mean the death of the local language. Bilingualism is a natural human capability, and while some people are worried about the increased use of English in Scandinavia, I remain positive. The Norwegian government, for example, have firm policies at hand to ensure the continued use of local Norwegians languages, while still enhancing English as a Second Language in schools. Every Norwegian citizen should speak Norwegian and English fluently. In fact, I hope we will see more trilingualism in the years to come, hopefully with emphasis on Arabic, French, Chinese or Spanish.

There should be no dialectic between English and the local language – instead there should be an embracing of bilingualism.

Crystal (2003) contends that the “need to a global language is particularly appreciated by the international academic and business communities” (p. 13), and this trend needs to continue. With one common language we can share more information. The issue to me is not the diffusion of English across the globe, but the acute necessity to ensure that all people learn English. I am excited about the prospects of a global language, and am not the least worried about the loss of local languages, AS LONG AS proper policies are in place to ensure the continued use of local languages.

There should be no dialectic between English and the local language – instead there should be an embracing of bilingualism. I see Norway as a good example, where every aspect of public life is in Norwegian, but the school places a heavy emphasis on English as a foreign language, so that every citizen is proficient by the time they graduate secondary school.

References:

Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The role of religion and language in public education

I would argue that religion and language are two of the aspects of our identity that defines us the most. Further, it would not be wrong to say that education should provide a safe and nurturing environment for children to develop a sense of self and finding their place in society. Does it not follow that religion and languages should have a central part of public education?

Ultimately, we must determine how much of a child’s education should take place in schools (the public sphere), and how much should be left up to parents and/or religious institutions (the private sphere). Is it necessary for the state to provide culturally relevant education to all citizens, or is it enough simply to facilitate this by for example cutting down the time students have to spend in school? At a school I taught at, students were off Wednesday and Friday afternoons, at which time most of them attend classes in subjects like Islam, foreign languages, or other subjects not provided by the school. The school was so multicultural (both in terms of religious beliefs and languages), that the administration could not possibly meet the needs of all students. Is this practice nurturing diversity and multiculturalism, or is it strengthening the divisions between ethnic groups in society?

Ultimately, we must determine how much of a child’s education should take place in schools (the public sphere), and how much should be left up to parents and/or religious institutions (the private sphere)

Milligan (2006) observes that by separating Islamic education and public schools, the Philippines government is producing citizens who are “virtual foreigners in their own country” (p. 416); they are Muslim Filipinos who see their nationality as being completely separate from their religion and language (Arabic). Would decentralization of the educational system remedy this situation? Could we have certain school districts with “Islamic” schools, and others with “Christian” schools? Or how about introducing Arabic as language of instruction (LOI) as an option for Muslim students? Would such arrangements lead to a healthy flourishing of cultures, or would we see closed-off religious ghettos, each with its own educational system? My worry is that through decentralization and less nation-state control we are building boxes that only fit certain stereotypes. I mean, what happens to the Christian minority in a Muslim area? Or what of the children from mixed families?

My worry is that through decentralization and less nation-state control we are building boxes that only fit certain stereotypes.

I’m asking a lot of questions in this post, and it’s not for the rhetorical effect, but because I really do have trouble making up my mind on this one. As I mentioned above, I think it is crucial to have a clear understanding of the difference between education and schooling, and of what we want our schools to provide. Michael W. Apple (2001) states that, “[c]urriculum reflects what is considered by an education system as valid and legitimate knowledge” (as cited in Gross, 2006, p. 607), but by this definition most nation-states today would come off as rather neglectful. In Rwanda, for example, the national language is at best allotted a couple of hours each week, while imported languages like English and French have taken over as language of instruction. What signal does this send to the children about their origins and culture? Which values are transmitted through the national curriculum?

Perhaps it is a (wrongful) essentialist assumption to think that Muslim students require Arabic classes to be “whole”, or that Jewish students should be entitled to Hebrew classes because their language is what makes them Jewish. From my own experience, though, I would claim that there is a lot of identity tied up in language. Like May (2008), I feel that “[c]hanging the language preference of the state and civil society, or at least broadening then, would better reflect the cultural and linguistic demographics of most of today’s multinational (and polyethnic) states” (p. 164).

References:

Gross, Z. (2006). Power, Identity, and Organizational Structure as Reflected in Schools for Minority Groups: A Case Study of Jewish Schools in Paris, Brussels, and Geneva. Comparative Education Review 50(4): 603-624.

May, S. (2008). Language and minority rights: Ethnicity, nationalism, and the politics of language. Routledge: New York.

Milligan, J. A. (2006). Reclaiming an Ideal: The Islamization of Education in the Southern Philippines. Comparative Education Review, 50(3): 410-430.