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Legitimacy: the role and power of language in education

Kwarlizzle's picture

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
 – John Donne
All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others
 – George Orwell, Animal Farm.
       In this class and some of my other classes across many disciplines, we have had several discussions whose aims were to impress upon us the truth of John Donne’s assertion that “no man is an island,” that we do not exist in a vacuum.  Especially in this class, we are discovering that even within ourselves, we are not an Island, so to speak. Inside the brain, where the seat of our persons and our cognitive functions reside, we find that the way we perceive the world is an ongoing interaction between compartments of the brain that we have termed the “storyteller” and the “cognitive unconscious” (Grobstein). In addition, we are discovering that more than one ‘person’ exists within ourselves – we are a conglomerate of multiple personalities, each with their own distinct character.
       Apart from within ourselves, we interact with our world and with other people: we form social groups, and find common ground with others, make friends and lead our lives. It is from our daily interactions – the interactions of our selves (storyteller, cognitive unconscious, and personalities) with others’ selves that create culture and relationships, for what is culture but the way of life of a group of people, and what are relationships but the interpersonal interactions of people?
       Of the many tools which enable us to navigate the world and interact with other people, one of the most important, if not the most important, is language. Language is paramount. It is the primary way in which we communicate within ourselves and with others, and the primary way in which we navigate this world (Boltz, Shipley).
       The primacy of language lies in its power, not to constrain our thinking, as was proposed by Benjamin Lee Whorf,1 but in its power to describe and to invoke (Deutscher). Take the genre of fantasy for example. Countless high fantasy authors harness the invocative power of language when they weave their worlds.  JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth, C S Lewis’ Narnia, Sharon Shinn’s Samaria, and the tapestries woven by countless authors of high fantasy, are made possible purely by the ability of these authors to use words to invoke a world different from reality. In fact even fiction authors do this whenever they set their pens to paper, and the inherent invocative power of language is evident whenever one sits to read a book. The ability of speakers to invoke feelings in their listeners, the ability of authors and speakers to galvanize people into fighting for a cause is evidence of the invocative power of language.
       In his article Does Language Shape The Way We Think? Guy Deutscher rightfully rubbishes the notion that language constrains our capacity to reason (Deutscher 5). Language may not “shape the way we think”, but it most definitely shapes the way we describe our world; language has descriptive power. In Ga, a West African language, people often say of a child who is acting in a particular way, that “emli fili l?.” There does not seem to be an equivalent expression in English, and it extremely difficult to describe the particular set of behaviors a child has to display to elicit this response to an English speaker (Mensah). However, repeat that expression to any speaker of Ga, and immediately, they have a good idea of how such a child was behaving. A second example would be the word “kafra” in the Bono dialect of Akan. This word may be directly translated into English as “take heart.”However, the English word does not capture the nuances and notions of profound empathy that are implicit in the word kafra. Likewise, the English phrase “things will get better” is no match for the depth of feeling behind the Nigerian pidgin English phrase “e go better.” So while there are equivalent phrases in English, the descriptive quality of the words are lost in translation. Similarly, very few Ga or Akan phrases are any match for the colorful euphemisms or idioms found in the English language. Language is powerful because it has the ability to shape connotations and create sentiment, and define our idea of the abstract.
       On the political stage, the sheer power of language has longed been acknowledged, and has been utilized both for nefarious purposes and as healing tools. Several authors have noted that one of the most effective ways to suppress whole groups of people is to take away their language (Otabil). Colonialism worked successfully on this principle. Colonialism worked by undermining local systems of authority (Achebe, Hucks). The language of the indigenous peoples was forced aside in favor of English. It worked phenomenally. Within a generation, many of the colonized people believed in the superiority of the language and customs of their colonizers and were eager to eschew their traditions in favor of norms imposed by their colonial masters. According to Kwaku Sintim Misa, it worked so well, that in Ghana, even in the years immediately after colonialism, people delighted in announcing to their peers that “my children do not speak our language… [it’s] a symbol of affluence, [and a good thing to say that of your children]” (Misa).  Many children were also given “English names” in favor of more “traditional” names – in fact, it was considered in bad taste not to give a child an English name. My own name reflects both my parents’ ethnicities. Growing up, strangers, upon hearing my name, would ask for my “English name” and insist, upon hearing that I don’t have one, that “but you MUST have an English name; everybody has one. The one you've given me is just your ‘house name’”.
       Post-colonially, one of the ways countries have attempted to regain their identities has been to ‘take back’ their languages. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was instrumental in the movement for African writers to write in their indigenous languages; in Ghana,as part of the move to shake away colonial power,  a resurgence of forgoing English names in favor of ‘traditional names’ has occurred - it is now more common to see people with names like Yaa Serwaa3, or Nana Aba, or Naa Ayeley  or Selasie, instead of names like John and Charles and Lily and Jessica. In India, part of the reclaiming effort has included ‘Indianising’ place names in the country: “Bombay” is now “Mumbai” and “Madras” is now “Chennai.” Language is power because it confers legitimacy on its speakers.
       That language is powerful is a truism that has long been acknowledged in academia – learning a second language is often encouraged because it conveys the idea of a renaissance spirit, of exoticism, and worldliness upon a person. It is looked upon as beneficial, so it is encouraged.
       However, in education, the power of language is not acknowledged to its full extent. That is to say that in education there exists a hierarchy of languages, and the ones that are most highly valued are those languages which would seem to bestow economic or academic advantage. Not all languages are equal. Indeed, the respected languages of the world seem to rely on geography and economic prowess: romance languages are favored because the western hemisphere till date still contains the most economically successful countries in the world: it is always fashionable to say “I can speak French too!” Chinese and Hindi are becoming more respectable languages as their countries of origin gain economic prominence on the world stage (Hoffman). The power of Western languages and those of emerging economies are widely acknowledged in academic systems.
       However academia does not give much, if any, legitimacy to other languages – the languages of the downtrodden, or of the marginalized, or of those countries that have no economic prominence to speak of. In fact, it seems that those languages are discouraged. A case in point is the language requirement at one prestigious liberal arts college in the United States. Currently the rules at the said institution state that a student who is bilingual may waive the language requirement. However a number of students from West African countries have complained that they were informed that the languages they speak are not eligible to be considered exemptions, because “we want a language that is spoken by many people” and because “we want languages, not dialects” (RW).  These students noted that their counterparts from Asia – namely India and China – were exempted without question, whether or not they spoke their national languages4. This bias is not peculiar to western academia. Holli of the blog Holli’s ramblings remarked on the bias of Ghanaian academia to non-Ghanaian languages that she notice on a visit to the Ghana Institute of Languages (GIL): the institute offers courses for students wishing to study the romance languages, and German, and Chinese, and Japanese, but does not offer a single of the at-least-72 indigenous languages of Ghana!
       The consequence of this bias by academia is that it makes them false practitioners. How can one take a seriously a college that claims to acknowledge the importance of diversity when it simultaneously refuses to recognize that an African language is as valid as an Asian language? How can one take seriously an institution that distinguishes between ‘languages’ and ‘dialects’? Is one less descriptive or invocative than the other? Is one more important than the other? How can one take an Institute such as the GIL seriously when one realizes that they do not put any serious effort into nurturing their own indigenous languages?
       Another consequence, perhaps even more severe than the loss of integrity of academic institutions, is the deleterious effect the delegitimizing of languages has on students and speakers of these languages. For in effect, what academia is saying when it refuses to acknowledge the value of Igbo, or Ewe, or Shona as equal to the Value of Mandarin, or Hindi, or Spanish or Portuguese, is that “all languages are equal, but some languages are more equal than others,” to borrow phrasing from George Orwell; it creates a state of inequality while ostensibly painting a picture of the equality of languages. Academia then accomplishes what colonialism accomplished: when it takes away the legitimacy of a language, it takes away a part of the humanity and legitimacy of the speakers of that language. When academia denies the equality of a language, it denies the power of that language to describe the world, and invoke specific imagery, and elicit a response in the people who understand the language. It denies that those languages can do these things as effectively as the languages it celebrates.
       We have spoken in class severally of the central role of education and learning in our lives today. Education, in addition to nurturing creativity, is supposed to, if nothing else, reinforce our notions of our intrinsic worth, our notions that we are capable of navigating the future, and our notions that we are valuable as human beings. In placing a differential value on languages, academia fails to acknowledge the transformative power of all languages, and ultimately fails to reaffirm that we are all created equal.
       Works Cited:
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. N.p.: n.p., 1961. N. pag. Print.
Boltz, Marilyn. "Cognition (Pscyhology of Language)." KINSC. Haverford College. Fall 2009. Lecture.
Deutscher, Guy. "Does Your Language Shape the Way You Think?" Editorial. New York Times. 26 Aug. 2010. Web. 1 Nov. 2010. <>.
Grobstein, Paul. "Brain, Education, and Inquiry." Park 127.Bryn Mawr College. Fall 2010. Lecture.
Hoffman, Brendan. "Will Americans Really Learn Chinese." Weblog post. New York Times. 7 Feb. 2010. Web. 8 Nov. 2010. <>.
Hucks, Tracey. "Religious Themes in African American Literature." Hall.Haverford College. Spring 2008. Lecture.
Mensah, Sowa. "Discussion on the Ease of Translating Ga Phrases into English." Personal interview. 12th Oct. 2010.
Misa, Kwaku Sintim. Ghana's 50th Anniversary Comedy Show. Accra, Ghana. Britisch Broadcasting Corporation. BBC, n.p., 2007. BBC. Web. 8 Nov. 2010. < specials/138_africanperform08/page9.shtml>.
RW: a dean of unnamed college. "Discussion why West African Languages were not eligible to be waived for language requirement." Personal interview. 12th Oct. 2010.
Shipley, Jesse. "Colonialism, Law, and Human Rights in Africa." KINSC. Haverford College. Fall 2010. Lecture.
1 The Whorfian Hypothesis, which states that our mother tongues constrain our abilities to reason, has since been disproven.
2 Tradtional names were the names you were called at home Out in the world, where you had to present a civilized appearance, you had to produce your English name.
3 Anecdotal evidence: while I was growing up, ‘traditional’ names like Yaa Serwaa, were reserved for servant girls, and people from lower classes. So imagine my surprise that in recent years, thanks to this new renaissance, when I met a few girls from upper middle class families named Yaa Serwaa, or Abena Serwaa!
4 One Indian student was exempted because she spoke Kannada, an Indian “dialect” that is government sponsored; she did not speak Hindi, which is the official language of India.







Paul Grobstein's picture

languages and diversity

Point well taken.  If indeed different languages make possible to a significant extent different descriptions of worlds, then indeed we lose diversity/potentiality when we give priority to particular languages over other ones.  Ideally, there would be both common languages (to facilitate creation of common worlds) and a rich array of other languages, to broaden the potentiality of future worlds?

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