By Jonty Yamisha
There’s an old joke that a language is a dialect with an army. And there’s some truth in this, as modern languages are unique creatures.
They’re organically rooted in human culture. In fact, people have been speaking languages far longer than we’ve had formal governments. But at the same time, modern languages are the product of intervention by centralized social structures, first through the church and now, governments. From Luther’s influence on unifying German to the French Government’s role in preserving their language to the reconstruction of modern Hebrew, many modern languages are slightly removed from their original organic roots.
In a way, modern languages are a bit like bonsai trees. They are born from seeds but shaped by hands over time into how they appear to us today.
But what happens when the guiding hand of one language comes into conflict with another?
This is often the case in multilingual cities and countries. Switzerland, Belgium, Singapore, Montreal, and many others experience a struggle between multiple linguistic powers. So, how can multilingual regions prioritize their main languages while respecting the status of others?
Worst-case scenario, a government tries to suppress minority languages in favor of the country’s main language. Why? Because for some reason, the view that language learning is a zero-sum game still exists. No matter how much evidence says otherwise, some people feel that if you take the time to learn another language, you somehow miss out on your own language or lose a part of your culture and identity. Sadly, this leads some governments to try and suppress other languages.
These obstacles can range in severity. Governments can cut funding for foreign language education. They can make it harder to open businesses that cater to people speaking minor languages. Governments can also allow prejudice towards a minority group to go on unpunished. They can even outright ban the speaking of other languages. These efforts to “prune” a country’s language tree can have lasting, devastating effects on minority populations and the country as a whole.
History is plagued with attempts to suppress and wipe out minority languages. From efforts to erase Hawaiian to the “Russification” of the Soviet Era, “Linguistic Genocide” isn’t a new concept. And the end result is usually the same: the promotion of racist ideologies and lasting bifurcations between populations that only stalls society’s progression.
Those that argue for language suppression often do so from the angle that minority cultures should make better efforts to integrate. However, suppressing minority languages can actually have the exact opposite results that those in power think it might accomplish. Children who aren’t allowed to use their “mother tongue” find it harder to learn the dominant language in the area that they live.
Language suppression can also severely limit the abilities of a nation’s population. Sadly, mythologies, xenophobia, and ignorance still plague people’s understanding of bilingual education. But across the board, bilingual children think faster, perform better on tests, and are more inclined to creative thinking because their brains function differently than monolingual speakers.
We live in an increasingly globalized world where being able to communicate with multiple countries opens up the doors to new opportunities. And while Engish may be the lingua franca, it’s only spoken by 25% of the world’s population. What’s more, every country in the world has minority languages within its borders. Embracing these cultures within showcases to the world how accepting you are of differences, inviting opportunities for growth of all kinds.
In each of these examples, the government was responsible for supporting or standing in the way of multilingualism. Having clear systems in place that make minority languages accessible to everyone on a daily basis makes it easier to promote bilingualism within a country. And ensuring students have access to years of effective language courses that expose them to other aspects of cultures within their countries provides the needed motivation to help preserve these languages. Simultaneously, if a government makes a weak effort or outright tries to push another language out, it can be that much harder for the minority language to survive in that environment.
But the onus isn’t entirely on the government. People influence change. Understanding that trying to suppress languages does more harm than good can go a long way. Mainly, it can show governments that better efforts need to be made to support minority languages throughout their borders. In doing so, people from all backgrounds can grow to feel appreciated in a nation where everyone may not speak but they respect them enough to help preserve it.