New Internationalist

Your language makes you who you are

A multitude of languages [Related Image]
The LEAF Project under a Creative Commons Licence

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.

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  1. #1 Graham Askey 27 Feb 14

    Although I would not disagree with your general argument I don't feel that you give a fair picture of the situation in Africa. Indigenous languages are learnt orally within the community and it is rare, at least in the nearly 20 countries I have visited to find people who only speak a colonial language. Many, sometimes even the illiterate speak 2 or 3 languages. People may not have the chance to study their mother tongue in detail but Africa has always had an oral culture - there are no Shakespearean works to study as almost all the languages never had alphabets. Former colonial languages are often the most practical way to communicate between all communities: Nigeria has 527 languages, at least they can agree on English which can also provide opportunities in tourism or for internet based learning. The same can be said for French or Portuguese where they are spoken. Graham

  2. #2 Donald Booth 27 Feb 14

    Nicely put.

    ’A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.’

  3. #3 P Rossi 27 Feb 14

    What you write about African languages holds true for many regional languages in Europe as well (exceptions being those in Spain). My mother tongue is Venetian, a non-standardised language still spoken by 70% of the people in Italy's Veneto region. However, if the percentage is subdivided by age, far few of those under 30 speak it any more. And most Venetians, irrespective of age, consider it a mere dialect even if it has been used in the past and in the present in poetry (Zanzotto) and theatre (Goldoni's plays for example).
    You are right to say that “everyone has a right to speak their mother tongue;” however, no one is under any obligation to listen to you. That is the crux of the matter. Language is not an individual or even a collective right alone. It is above all a means by which societies function, and modernity is by its very nature glottophagic.
    Most European languages disappeared because those who spoke them opted for the languages of the ruling classes. Unless, the material value of a language is increased, sadly little can be done to save it.

  4. #4 Thavam 01 Mar 14

    Dear Friends and Comrades,This is a good but a very short article and I expect you will bring more in the June issue. Thanks

  5. #5 Siji 03 Mar 14

    @Graham, you know Nigeria is not a country and the evidence of this you mentioned yourself 'Nigeria has 527 languages'. This is the cause of all these troubles in Nigeria today.

  6. #6 Carnabwth 03 Mar 14

    Of course, not all of us 'Brits' have English as our mother tongue. You only have to venture into many Welsh communities to find that out.

  7. #7 SOMALIWEYNE 16 Mar 14

    For ALL Developing and Developed World Citizens They Should value their Language and Culture without any reservations. I used work and live in Northern Canada Among the Inuit , Dene, and Metis Nations of the Former Northwest Territories in the early & Mid-80's when they were struggling Tooth & Nail in the preservation of their Aboriginal Language and Territorial Integrity against the Southern WASP Canadians who were only interested what was under the Native GROUND.
    Back to my Home land , SOMALIA before the INVASION Zionist-CIA/AL-QAEDA VULTURES and AFRICOM + BUFFALO SOLDIERS(AU Mercenaries & Abyssinian Fascist) -

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About the author

Jo Lateu a New Internationalist contributor

Having joined New Internationalist in 1998 as distribution manager, Jo moved into the editorial team in 2008, where she tries to keep her colleagues in order. Failing that, she edits, proofs and commissions pieces for the magazine and website and waters the plants when she remembers.

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