The language of injustice

Imagine going to work and having to constantly explain why you’re speaking or writing in english. Well this is what is essentially happening to Parasite director, Bong Joon Ho. With a historic first best picture win for a non-English film at the Oscars, many are asking why the dialogue is in his native Korean tongue.

Now while this might seem like a harmless question, at its core there is a problematic power dynamic at play. There’s an assumption that people all over the world should be speaking English as default. In fact the assumption goes further and positions English as superior to other languages. While in the context of the movie industry this attitude has narrowed the chances for non-English participation, for people living in poverty it has narrowed the chances for a better life.

Throughout the history of colonisation the erasure of native languages has mostly taken place through the education system. Despite the multitude of languages and dialects found in some countries, European colonists often enforced their own language on school children. And it still happens today. You might argue that learning English – the second most spoken language in the world – does nothing but open up more opportunities for people living in a globalised world. However in many instances, this has led to more problems and even become a barrier to education.

Speaking from experience

It’s important to remember that language isn’t something we just learn at school. As children we learn how to use words in our everyday contexts. So imagine growing up learning your native language, only to get to school and be told to disregard it for English. On top of that, it’s difficult to practice what you’re learning outside of school, because your family predominantly only speak and understand your native language. For those living in poverty this can be further exacerbated by a lack of access to English books and media. The aversion to bilingualism puts those students at a disadvantage.

Furthermore the erasure of native language can also lead to the loss of culture and informal education. Have you ever spent a long time in a country where English isn’t the dominant language? I remember the inner-conflict I had when I volunteered in Bolivia for a few months. It felt like I couldn’t bring all of me to the table. Even with enough conversational Spanish (I should’ve definitely learnt more before going), I found it hard to fully translate my ideas, my humour and my personality in general. When an indigenous community has a foreign language imposed on them, the reality is even worse. The students become alienated from their own identity.

In Reinke’s 2004 study of indigenous communities in Mexico, she found that local knowledge and skills were at risk of being lost, due to being ignored by external English language curriculums. Whether it’s farming as part of a balanced ecosystem, or using agriculture to protect against flooding, indigenous communities often have knowledge that non-natives wouldn’t know. Ultimately some knowledge and culture is locked behind language. Once you erase that language, you risk losing that knowledge and culture too. 

Lost in translation

At worst English can stop children learning altogether. A few years ago I volunteered in a school in Malawi and grew increasingly frustrated at the American curriculum that was used. In particular, I remember trying to help one student with their maths work – the textbook tasked them with adding up the value of some coins. The problem was they were American coins and the student didn’t know the value of each… and neither did I. The student was left feeling discouraged at what should’ve been a simple task.

With language comes other assumptions of knowledge, and these assumptions can block learning. In fact in some cases children who learn in their native language during primary school, face no options for non-English secondary schools. Their education becomes stunted and held back by a language that doesn’t recognise them.

The final word

So what’s the answer? Should English never be taught to non-English speaking people? No. The language itself isn’t the problem, but rather what can happen when language is imposed on people. Living in a globalised world, speaking English is of course an advantage. However it shouldn’t come at the expense of people’s native language and culture.

Instead we should work together to create and cultivate a third space of language and meaning. One which isn’t simply divided into English and non-English speakers. And in this third space, all are welcome to retain their language and culture, while sharing it with each other.

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