Your language makes you who you are

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Your language makes you who you are

by Jo Lateu


The LEAF Project under a Creative Commons Licence

Do you remember your time at school? If you are from the West, and were at school in the West, your lessons were probably in your mother tongue (first language). But school is much more difficult if lessons are in a different language from the language you speak at home.

This is the reality for millions of schoolchildren around the world, particularly in the Global South. In many African countries, for example, the language of education is a Western one (English, French, Portuguese). These languages were left as the languages of power, government, law and education after colonialism. Eighty-seven per cent of African children do not have education in their mother tongue. When they arrive at school – if they get to a school and can pay the fees – they have to learn a new language before they can begin to study other subjects. People tell them that it will help them if they learn a Western language: they will get more money, more jobs, maybe move away from their village, or their country, to see the world.

And for most of them, this isn’t true. The best jobs in government, universities and business go to the people at the top of the society, like in colonial times. It is almost impossible for a poor, rural child, especially a girl, to get an important job. But they tell the children their own language is backward and not useful, and they must learn English (or French, Spanish, Portuguese).

There are many reasons why most of the world’s 7,000 languages are in danger of disappearing – this narrow-minded education policy is one reason. Some countries are beginning to understand this: Zambia, for example, said last year that English will only be used in teaching at secondary schools, and that primary education will be in one of seven (out of 70) local languages. This is a positive first step, but a lot of damage has already been done. We need changes to government policy, and a big change in attitude. People have to become proud of their mother tongues again.

I live in Oxford and there are many foreign students here learning English. TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) is a very big business, in Oxford, and the whole UK. The British Council has offices in 109 countries and gives English lessons and use of English libraries. It says its purpose is ‘to build mutually beneficial relationships between people in the UK and other countries and to help people see the UK’s creative ideas and achievements’.

The British government supports them. They know this is good for our economy and our feeling of power over the world, and that it will help fill our universities. Universities now really need students from other countries, who pay high fees. They take the most talented young people away from their own countries. A lot of British aid money also goes to promoting and teaching English in the Global South.

We British people sit back and feel proud and happy. We know we can find someone in almost all countries who can understand us (if we speak LOUDLY and s l o w l y). No-one has told us our mother tongue is worth nothing; we can get books, TV, music and the internet in our own language and we accept it and don’t even think about it.

We shouldn’t. For now, English is the global language, but in 100 years’ time, it could be Arabic or Mandarin. More importantly, we must understand that everyone has a right to speak their mother tongue, and to benefit from their language’s cultural, historical and social connections. No language is worth more or less than any another – it is only history and geography, or the abuse of power, that make them more important.

The June 2014 issue of New Internationalist will be about endangered languages and why we need a multilingual world.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: