We need the languages of the world

Notebook entry #2 2011-09-27

“Schools alone cannot save languages …but schools  can kill them more or less alone. Of course schools reflect the rest of society.”

Tove Skutnabb-Kangas makes this powerful statement on page 6 of “What is happening to the languages of the world”, a chapter from her book Linguistic genocide in education – or worldwide diversity and human rights?

It’s a statement that’s difficult to argue with. Mary Young‘s article, “Anishinabemowin: A way of seeing the world, reclaiming my identity” shows how the Canadian residential school system tried to wipe out her language.

But it wasn’t just the native languages that were under attack in Canada. My mother tells me that she and her friends were not allowed to speak their own languages at school. She grew up in Hamilton, Ontario. She and her friends spoke Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, and Russian at home and a mixture of these languages amongst each other. They were only allowed to speak English at school and that is the only language she is comfortable speaking now.

My friend, Diane, grew up in Cape Breton and told me that children were punished for speaking Gaelic in school.

French was almost wiped out in the Maritimes with many former Leblancs now calling themselves White. Again, English was the language taught in school.

But what my mother, my friend Diane, and assimilated Acadians have in common is that it was not just school that killed their languages. Their own families were complicit. In order to give their children the best start in life, they encouraged English to the detriment of their own languages. Speaking English meant future success. It was believed that their own languages would somehow hold them back.

My father’s family went further and changed their name from the Polish Bucki to the Scottish Buckie. My former parish priest is a White from Chezzetcook. His name was changed years ago from Leblanc.

Perhaps names didn’t change in Cape Breton but, according to Diane, many tried to wipe local expressions from their speech.  For example, Diane tells me that it was  common in Cape Breton to ask, “How are you yourself?” as it mimics the Gaelic speech pattern of “Clamar a tha thu fhein?” Rather than celebrating this richness, Cape Bretoners were “educated” out of using it so that their English sounded more like that spoken in Halifax.

So, it is not only the “Third  world elites” as Skutnabb-Kangas quotes Debi Prasanna Pattanayak as saying, who “deride the mother tongues in their own countries as dialect, slang, patois, vernacular, and condemn them to marginal use, or completely ignore them” (13). It is anyone who sees the dominant language and culture as something to which to aspire, something that will improve one’s lot in life.

This is what makes Mary Young’s father so remarkable when  he matter-of-factly asserted at the dinner table: “Intanishinabemowin nun awind oma biiting (We speak Saulteaux in this house).”

Faced with the forced residential schooling of his children, and other hardships forced on Canada’s First Nations peoples, Young’s father did not take the “If-you-can’t-beat-’em-,-join-’em” attitude that so many others did. Instead, he held true to his values in his house.

What made him fight the system? When others were freely giving up their language and even their family names to the dominant culture, what gave Young’s father the courage and strength to maintain his linguistic identity and, therefore, preserve it for his family?

I think this is an important question to try to answer in light of Skutnabb-Kangas’s discussion of the rate of language disappearance in the world today (pp 46-59). Because we may not have heard of many of the threatened languages such as Kila, Bung, or Njanga, or because they are spoken by very few people, does not make their loss any less important.

Languages, particularly minority languages, are important for two reasons:

  • They contain unique ways of seeing the world.
  • Their loss may be the harbinger of things to come.

Mary Young says, “I do not believe anyone can learn to speak and fully understand the Anishinabe language because it contains the world view of the Anishinabe people.”

Is this not true of many languages around the world? Is this not true also of English? Does English contain a world view that the world’s people are being unwittingly co-opted into? The current state of the world is not good. We live in a world of over consumption of material goods, of extreme disparity between rich and poor, of rapid environmental degradation. Did the English-language world view bring us here? If it did, how do we change it without the world views that are present in other languages?

Finally, perhaps we cannot save many of the world’s endangered languages but we can use their loss as a lesson. What’s next? If we lose Cayuga (Canada), Dalmatian (Croatia), or Penrhyn (Cook Islands), how far behind are the languages we take for granted — French, Croat, Thai?

French is already threatened in Canada outside Quebec. The demise of the long-form census has made it more difficult for francophone organizations to get the data they need to justify their requests for francophone services such as schools. Funding is being cut to many francophone organizations, and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s business cards are now in English only, a departure from federal government practice.

So, yes, perhaps schools have been instrumental in killing languages. But they didn’t do it alone and they didn’t do it without the express wishes of those who wield economic power.

And schools have been instrumental in the resurgence of francophone and Acadian language and culture in Nova Scotia and throughout the Acadian diaspora in the United States. Teachers from Nova Scotia’s Acadian communities teach French in schools in Louisiana and Maine. This growing resurgence has led to the next Congrès mondial acadien being held simultaneously in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Maine, something that has never been done before.

Promoting and supporting minority languages in schools and other community activities is costly. The debate as to whether it is worth the cost is ongoing in Canada and in the Maritimes in particular. If  we’re not careful, the resurgence of the francophone and Acadian culture could die again if those in power decide it just isn’t worth the cost.

If it can happen to French in Canada. It can happen to any language anywhere. Do we want to live in a world with only one language and one world view?