Whatever your memories of your school days – and let’s face it, for most of us, they were not ‘the best years of our lives’, whatever our parents claimed – the chances are you were taught in your mother tongue. Or at least, you were if you are a privileged Westerner who attended a well-staffed Western school. Maths, or physics (my personal nemesis), or geography can be difficult to grasp at the best of times – but imagine how much more of a challenge it would be if you were being taught in a language other than the one you speak at home.
This is the reality for millions of schoolchildren around the world, particularly in the Global South. In many African countries, for example, the language of education is a Western one (English, French, Portuguese) left behind as the language of power, government, law and academia – a legacy of colonialism. Eighty-seven per cent of African children have no access to education in their mother tongue. When they arrive at school – if they get to a school and are able to afford the fees in the first place – they have to learn a whole new language before they can even begin to study other subjects. They are told that learning a Western tongue will benefit them: it will give them social mobility, greater access to jobs, the possibility of moving out of their villages, even their countries, and experiencing the world.
For the vast majority of them, this simply isn’t true. Top jobs in government, universities and business continue to be filled by those belonging to an already-privileged tranche of the population, just as they were in colonial times. The likelihood of a poor, rural child, especially a girl, ending up in a position of power is minute. But the fire is stoked, English (or French, Spanish, Portuguese) is pursued as the Holy Grail – and the children are made to feel that their own languages are backward, embarrassing or simply irrelevant.
There are many reasons why the vast majority of the world’s 7,000 languages are endangered – but a blinkered education policy is certainly one of them. Some countries are beginning to realize this: Zambia, for example, last year announced that English would only be used in teaching at secondary schools, and that primary education would be carried out in one of seven (out of 70) local languages. Although this is a positive first step, much of the damage has already been done. As well as changes to government policy, what is needed is a sea change in attitude, not least among the people themselves, who need to regain pride in their mother tongues.
Here in Oxford, where I live, the streets teem with foreign students who have come to the city to learn English. TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) is a huge business, not just in Oxford, but for the country as a whole. The British Council has offices in 109 countries and offers English lessons and access to English libraries around the world. Its purpose is, it says, ‘to build mutually beneficial relationships between people in the UK and other countries and to increase appreciation of the UK’s creative ideas and achievements’.
The British government is fully supportive, knowing that it is good for our economy, our (unfounded) sense of superiority as a ‘global power’, and that it will help fill our universities. Now desperate for high-fee-paying foreign students to help them meet their budgets, universities have no qualms about creaming off the most talented young people from other countries in a brain drain. A significant portion of British aid money is also pumped into promoting and teaching English in the Global South.
We smug Brits tend to sit back, happy in the knowledge that there are few countries where we wouldn’t be able to find someone who could understand us (if we speak LOUDLY and s l o w l y, that is). We haven’t been told that our mother tongue is worthless; we have access to books, TV, music and the internet in our own language and we take the fact for granted.
We shouldn’t. For the moment, English looks set to become the global language, but in 100 years’ time, it could be Arabic or Mandarin. More importantly, we should realize that everyone has a right to speak their mother tongue, to benefit from the cultural, historical and social connections inherent within them. No language is intrinsically worth more or less than any another – it is only the vagaries of history and geography, or the abuse of power, that make them so.
The June 2014 issue of New Internationalist will focus on endangered languages and why we need a multilingual world.