International Mother Language Day

The 21st February is when we observe the International Mother Language Day every year. According to UNESCO, this day reflects the aim “to promote linguistic diversity and multilingual education, and to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue”. This is a very topical goal, because between 50-90% of the languages spoken today will be extinct by the end of the century, according to estimates by a leading linguist, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. You may want to compare this against the estimate that 2-20% of biological species may become extinct in the same timeframe.

In some places around the world, languages are in danger because of administrative policies and police action. Even where legistlation purports to protect heritage languages, however, languages may be in decline because of subtle, but equally hostile language policy. In this post, I want to focus mostly on the latter, and try to raise awareness of how ingrained beliefs, attitudes and practices of linguistic majorities can contribute to language repression. To do this, I will highlight a couple of examples of what I believe to be repressive language practices.

Poster of the International Mother Language Day

What is language policy?

Before moving onto the examples, there’s one important point to make: In the context of this post, language policy does not mean only top-down legislative measures intended to regulate language activity. Following Spolsky, I hold that such measures (or ‘language management’) are just one component of policy; other components include internalised beliefs about language (or ‘language ideology’) and language practices. With regard to the latter, Spolsky notes:

The real language policy of a community is more likely to be found in its practices than in its management.

 Spolsky, 2004, p. 222

That is to say, overt attempts to regulate language, such as the war of the Académie Française against English, are only one of the factors that shape the linguistic ecology of a community. Actual practices by language users are just as important in determining the status of each language, and the space that where such a language is legitimated. Examples of such practices include cases when a company imposes an English-only regulation at the workplace (link no longer active), or when a supermarket clerk in the UK refuses to recognise a prescription because it is in Welsh. The following examples demonstrate how such practices operate.

“Incomprehensible languages”

The first example I shall draw on is a directive from the administration of a major hospital in the North East of Greece. This is an part of Greece where Turkish, Pomak, Bulgarian and Russian co-exist with Greek, the dominant language. The directive reads:

It has come to our attention that Residents [Specialist Registrars], mostly in the A&E department, talk to patients who have come to the Greek National Health Service in order to benefit from the health services that we provide, using languages that are incomprehensible to nearly all the Attending physicians [Consultants], […] Conversations between doctors and patients should take place in Greek. (translated)

The hospital administration seems to acknowledge that some patients may not be able to communicate in Greek. However, they categorically instruct hospital staff Greek should be the language of choice, even if resident doctors and patients are competent in other languages. Thishe Greek-only policy is justified by citing risks of miscommunication, although it is not clear how forcing patients to talk to their doctors in a second language will mitigate such risks. Furthermore, one cannot help noticing the emphatic reference to the ‘Greek’ NHS. Such verbal verbal cues seem to hint that individuals from marginalised communities (non-Greeks), might be extended the privilege of access to healthcare, but they are morally bound to conform to the dominant linguistic norms.

Oppressive education

Unsurprisingly, it was easy to find examples of repressive language practices in education. Earlier this year [2014], it appears that a science teacher faced disciplinary action by the local education authority, because one of his students turned in a paper in Polish, her mother language. According to this news article from Kathimerini, a conservative broadsheet:

A student from Poland, who was unable to write in Greek, requested permission from her teacher for permission to respond to a geography test in Polish. The teacher accepted, “in order to avoid putting the child on the spot, and further stigmatising her”. After the end of the test, the teacher initialled the paper without marking it (which he would have been unable to do, anyway) and awarded the student the minimum grade. However, the Headteacher felt that the teacher’s actions were not appropriate, and brought the matter to the attention of the Athens Directorate of Secondary Education, who are now holding a preliminary inquiry. (translated & condensed)

I was pleasantly surprised to see that even the conservative press appeared to sympathise with the teacher and the Polish girl. But while public discourse was understanding, grass-roots sentiment was not. This bizarre case appears to have drawn the attention of many teachers and administrators, rallied online against the science teacher and in defence of existing policies. The following comment, from a discussion forum, is a typical example of such discourse:

[When attending a school in a foreign country, you should] accept that school’s working rules. This is exactly what every student should do when they choose to attend a Greek school. What should a school be, anyway? A lawless entity? Besides, as correctly stated [by someone else], the Greek Constitution defines that Education in Greece is exclusively provided in the Greek Language. (translated, original punctuation retained)

The extract above (which, incidentally, does not represent the Greek Constitution very accurately) echoes the same ideological beliefs that were evident in the hospital directive above: namely that being ‘Greek’ is synonymous to speaking ‘Greek’, and that diversity is somehow inherently problematic. It also offers some disturbing insights about how some teachers deal with multilingualism and different linguistic backgrounds.

Some concluding thoughts

To be very transparent: I have chosen the above examples mainly because of my familiarity with the Greek context. I do not think that Greece is especially intolerant of linguistic difference [Update 2019: I am not sure I still agree with this statement]. I also do not feel it is within my rights to judge the individuals concerned, even though I find their actions inconsiderate, unethical, and legally questionable.

Rather, what I wanted to demonstrate is that linguistic rights, like all human rights, do not only come under threat from repressive regimes. Such oppressive language management is relatively easy to identify, and it is easy to visualise what form resistance against it might conceivably take: Vigorous campaigns against such policies are frequent and, nowadays, well-publicised (e.g., 12, 3).  We are nowhere near an ideal state of affairs in this regard, but -if you know where to look for them- there are signs of ongoing progress (e.g., 1, 23) , and there is a certain degree of public awareness about the distance between where we are now and where we need to be.

The point I am trying to make is that discriminatory language ideologies and practices are at least as important threats to linguistic freedom as oppressive language management is. I would even say that they are even more pernicious on account of being opaque, and even normalized as acceptable social behaviour. The question then is, how might such discrimination be resisted?


About this post: This post was written to commemorate the International Mother Language Day 2014. For more information about language policy in Greece, you might also want to read a similar post, written for the International Mother Language Day 2019. If there is anything that you’d like to share about minority and heritage languages in Greece, I would very much like to hear from you, in the comments or here.

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