International Mother Language Day

The International Mother Language Day is observed every year on 21st February. According to UNESCO, it is intended “to promote linguistic diversity and multilingual education, and to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue”. Its importance is underscored by the fact that, according to some projections, between 50-90% of the languages spoken today will be extinct by the end of the century (you may want to compare this against the estimate that 2-20% of biological species may become extinct in the same timeframe).

This post aims to problematise language policy, in an attempt to raise awareness of how ingrained beliefs, attitudes and practices of linguistic majorities can contribute to language repression. I shall do so by highlighting a couple of examples of what I believe to be repressive language practices, and, through these examples, I aim to provide a counter-narrative to complacent beliefs about how legislation provides adequate protection to minority rights.

Poster of the International Mother Language Day

What is language policy?

Before moving onto the examples, I should clarify that the view taken in this post is that language policy is not limited to 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. (2004, p. 222)

That is to say, the status of any language in a community is only partially shaped by overt attempts to regulate, such as the war of the Académie Française against English. Actual practices, such as when a company imposes an English-only regulation at the workplace, or when a supermarket clerk refuses to recognise a prescription because it was written in Welsh, all seem to be just as important as large-scale initiatives in shaping the linguistic ecology of a community. 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, an area where Turkish, Pomak, Bulgarian and Russian are spoken in addition to 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)

In the document, the risks of miscommunication are cited as a justification for the policy. It is also acknowledged that some patients may not be able to communicate in Greek. However, it is categorically stated that Greek should be the language of choice, even if resident doctors and patients are competent in other languages. Furthermore, one cannot help noticing the emphatic reference to the ‘Greek’ NHS, or subtle verbal cues hinting that individuals from marginalised communities, who are extended the privilege of access to healthcare, 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, 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)

What I personally found surprising, is that while even the conservative press appeared to sympathise with the teacher and the Polish girl, this bizarre case appears to have drawn the attention of many teachers and administrators, who seem to have 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 is school, 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 provide an accurate representation of legal provisions) echoes the ideological beliefs expressed in the hospital directive, namely that ‘Greek’ is synonymous to ‘Greek-speaking’, and that diversity is inherently problematic. It also offers some disturbing insights about how language diversity is dealt with in at least some classrooms.

Some concluding thoughts

In the interest of being absolutely transparent about my intentions, I should state that the examples I chose were selected on account of my familiarity with the Greek context, and were not intended to single out this country as being especially intolerant of linguistic difference. Nor should the above be read as an indictment of the individuals concerned, even though I personally 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 progress is being made (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, and perhaps 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?

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