Tuesday, October 7, 2008

“English Language: Value – Free vs Oppressive”

The following quotations may be seen as representing a range of opinion in a debate about the role of English as an international language:

"since no cultural requirements are tied to the learning of English, you can
learn it and use it without having to subscribe to another set of values […]
English is the least localized of all languages in the world today.
Spoken almost everywhere in the world to some degree, and tied to no particular social,political, economic or religions system, or to a specific racial or cultural group,English belongs to everyone or to no one, or it at least is quite often regarded as having this property.” Wardaugh, R. (1987)

“What is at stake when English spreads is not merely the substitution or
displacement of one language by another but the imposition of new ‘mental
structures’ through English. This is in fact an intrinsic part of ‘modernization’
and ‘nation-building’, a logical consequence of ELT. Yet the implications of
this have scarcely penetrated into ELT research or teaching methodology.
Cross-cultural studies have never formed part of the core of ELT as an academic discipline,nor even any principled consideration of what educational implications might followfrom an awareness of this aspect of English linguistic imperialism.” Phillipson, R. (1992)

“there have been comments made about other structural aspects, too,
such as the absence in English grammar of a system of coding social class differences,which make the language appear more ’democratic’ to those who speak a language (e.g. Javanese)that does express an intricate system of class relationships.” Crystal, D. (1997)

Between Language, Society and Culture

Language plays a very important role in our everyday life. Not only is linguistic behavior the central focus of many social settings, but it is also on linguistic evidence that we base many of our evaluations of the world around us. Language is obviously one of the most sophisticated cognitive skills that humans possess, and one of the most apparent differences between the human species and other animal species. No surprise, then, that language is often considered the main clue to the secrets of the mind. After all, it is through language that our mind expresses itself. It is with language that we can study the mind. Language then is indissolubly linked with the members of the society in which it is spoken, and social factors are reflected in one’s speech. And because language plays such an important role in the development of a certain society and its culture it is only vital that one should assess whether or not the usage of a foreign language such as English is something to be celebrated in totality or something that is indeed repressive and marginalizes indigenous languages.

The Spread of English through Globalization

In an era of increased communication through the telephone, fax machine, television, and modem, the world is becoming more and more globally oriented. Businesses, families, friends, and many other groups with common interests are able to form small "tele-" or "cyber-" communities that transcend geographic boundaries. Yet, despite our ability to transmit information across oceans, communication still relies on language to mediate interchange between individuals within these communities. Information is useless if it cannot be processed and understood. Therefore, in order to achieve true and complete globalization, we would have to eliminate language barriers and develop a universal standard according to which everyone could interact at the same level of understanding. As English has moved towards its zenith, the status of the other principal languages has changed. Even though they are spoken by more people today than ever before, they have been demoted, degraded in relation to English. Today, French, Spanish, Arabic, German, Russian, etc., more or less have the status of regional languages, national languages that can be used beyond their national frontiers. But, they are losing their currency as the language of international communication, formal and informal: both in political and commercial contexts and in intercultural exchanges, as bridges between people who cross cultural frontiers or who like to enrich their lives with media products from abroad.

Linguistic homogenization is not only a consequence of global imperial domination; the process of nation-building has also contributed. Frequently, the creation of nation states has involved the adoption of a single national language, whereupon education and cultural expressions in other dialects and languages within the national frontiers have ceased. Not infrequently, use of subordinate languages and dialects has been forbidden or subject to political sanctions. Thus, globalization and the predominance of English at the expense of other languages is nothing new. It is rather a question of a radicalization and acceleration of a centuries-long trend, in which local varieties of language die out, and more universal varieties survive.

English as “Value – Free” VS English as Marginalizing

What was stated above can be seen in two levels: (1) Should the globalization of English be seen as the primary perpetrator of diminishing usage of local languages given the fact that this pattern of linguistic homogenization is also a result of national policies thereby saying that the people themselves (or the government at that) want to emphasize a foreign language first other than their own? Second, is “owning” the English the only way not to make it an oppressive language?

If we look at the first fold of the analysis, one might argue that indeed, it is our own fault. Why we had to develop a foreign language and abandon our own unique languages. But sadly, reality isn’t that simple especially that since we are in a third world country, economy and society mostly go in a Marxist view saying that the economy dictates society. By that, it means that if we have to ordain sustainable development we have to be globally competitive which means providing an avenue for a large percentage of foreign investors. Since this “relationship” means that we are on a leash from our first world masters, we have to be able to develop a society that is more than willing to serve their needs thus the sprouting of call centers in the Philippines. I concede in one point that English may have a democratizing effect and it actually improves at some point too our economic crises. But the question remains, is this in the long – run something to be celebrated even if economic problems will be solved?

I dare say NO. Because in the first place I strongly believe that this is not just an economic problem that has to be dealt with but it goes on deeper. Economy is just the tip of the iceberg. The problem primarily involves to the whole way of thinking and how the society is cultivated. Perhaps because of the fusion of several colonizers in the Philippines, then again, past is past and what matters most is what we do in the present that will prove to be a changing factor in the future. What we need to realize is that it is impossible to learn English without it being associated to western values, western culture, and such. But what is so bad about it? Primarily because our society (via our economic status) is designed to patronize them since time immemorial and government has been doing nothing but lip service in concentrating efforts to uplift nationalistic morale especially when it comes to saving endangered languages in the Philippines. I believe that we should not, at all cost, continue to use the excuse of us being colonized over and over to cover up for insufficient government programs to safeguard culture and society. This is important because in the end, when a certain state becomes economically stable, there will be a paradigm shift, it is the society that dictates the economy. But what can society do when it was brought up by its parents to always be dependent?

It is tear-dropping to know how some people virtually sacrifice their lives just to be able to use their own language. Take the Kurdish people of Turkey for example; government has outlawed the use of Kurdish language in favor of a national language which is Turkish. Kurds have fought and died for this right to be returned to them thereby showing to the world that their language is indeed something to be proud of and worth dying for. It is quite ironic in the Philippines that we let our own languages die right in our faces (although I know the irony that I am using English right now).

Next, we look at the second prong of the analysis: Is owning the English language the only way in avoiding it to becoming an oppressive language? There is some sound truth when Wardaugh said that it transcends everything because people have owned the English language much like a property. But this does not necessarily mean that one cannot subscribe to its attached western values too (as what was already discussed). What this implies is that by owning we become to see ourselves as a society who speaks English not just for economic sustenance but also as a means of communication. Although, this is only applicable to the educated population and leaves the poverty – stricken populace behind. Thereby creating another complicated sets of problems.

In southern California, there is a huge population of Chinese immigrants who are unwilling to learn English. Because of this, they created a sub – culture inside the state providing their own Chinese lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc. in that way they do not have to interact other languages.

In conclusion, I’m not saying that we should totally close our doors to the outside world We should in some way still have an avenue to be globally competitive, but it should be in due time. We are not ready for industrialization and globalization. Our government should have the certain level of sobriety to be able to realize the moral degradation of neglecting our own cultural values because in turn this will hurt the economy. We will become no more that dogs on a leash to our first world masters.

3 ek ek:

Bill Chapman said...

I would argue that we ought to be considering wider use of Esperanto, a language which " you can learn ... and use ... without having to subscribe to another set of values".

It's a joy to have English as a mother tongue, but I'm not at all sure that it's a universal blessing.

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Mohamed Idris said...

Competitiveness has little to do with the ability to speak English. China is growing because its people are hard-working. Language is only an added advantage. It is not the real thing. Many African countries have English as their official language. What's the result? The majority of the population can barely speak English, local languages are marginalized and there is no economic growth.

I don't know much about the Philippines, but in many countries around the world languages are dying because of the influence of other big local language. In many cases English affects big rather than small languages.