Sunday, 1 November, 2020

Towards A Sound Language Policy


Prof. Bhupa P. Dhamala


What would happen if there was only one language in the world? Multiple answers would shower in—biblical interpreters would assume humans would reach heaven by making a Tower of Babel, communication theorists would explain they could communicate to anybody living in any part of the world, and education policy-makers would argue they would not have to spend much money to pay to language teachers and grammar book writers meant for non-native speakers.  
Linguistic anthropologists would claim that single global language is an impossible idea. Since language is a carrier of culture, every language represents its corresponding culture. So there can be multiple languages because there are multiple cultures in the world. Linguistic diversity is thus an indispensable corollary of cultural diversity. A plausible question arises in such a situation. Are we adopting monolingualism or multilingualism? Are we experiencing linguistic homogeneity or linguistic diversity?
Linguistic Darwinism
Douglass A. Kibbee (2003) argues that linguistic theory can be likened to the free market theory of unfettered capitalism. In the states where the economy goes unchecked, the capitalists become richer. Likewise, in powerful states, governments make deliberate plans to make their languages richer and spread them in other parts of the world. Language itself does not spread unless its users make a conscious effort to expand it. The expansionists would, therefore, like to justify the domination of global languages as a natural selection.
This approach has a Darwinian component that leads to the domination of powerful languages and subjugation of powerless ones. Consequently, linguistic hierarchy is created. Whereas languages of powerful people prosper, those of the powerless die out. In this sense, linguistic imperialism holds a sway. Darwinian principles apply.
Linguistic Ecology
But Kibbee also argues that there is always conflict between monolingual practice and multilingual existence. Just as workers demand that there should be state intervention for their survival and sustenance, language activists also advocate for protecting endangered languages.
Those who advocate for linguistic human rights claim that there should be ecological protection of endangered languages because losing a language is the irrevocable loss of a human heritage. They base their argument on the assumption that just as cultural diversity is as essential as bio-diversity, so too linguistic diversity is as essential as cultural diversity.
World Situation
Frank Anshen (2003) says that every nation has their national language. The selection of national language largely depends on such factors as feeling of nationalism, interest of the dominant ethnic group, linguistic demographics, and the prestige of languages involved. While selecting a national language, there is often the combination of nationalism and ethnicity, with the second masquerading as the first. In some countries there is one national language provisioned in the constitution.
During the Panchayat regime in Nepal, and sometimes even today, experts of ethnicity have argued that Nepali language was selected as a national language despite it being the language of a powerful "ethnic group" popularly known as Chhetri-Bahun. In countries like Indonesia, India, Ireland, and Canada there is a constitutional provision of multiple languages. 
In Indonesia Javanese is the national language as it is spoken by over half of the population while hundreds of other languages are also spoken simultaneously. So is the case in India with use of Hindi as the national language. But America, Sweden, and Portugal have de facto monolingual practices, although over 80 percent of other languages are used in those countries. Belgium, Sri Lanka, and Canada have official bilingual policies, but they are multilingual in practice.
The western governments are making deliberate efforts to spread their languages by spending enormous amounts of money to teach their languages and write grammar books. British Council and American Language Center, for example, have established their offices in many nations to promote English education. But there is also intra-conflict between the global languages such as English, French, and German because France and Germany are in competition to propagate their own languages. In the same way, Chinese language is being taught to many people across the world through Confucius Institute.
State Intervention
Anshen further explains that whether explicitly written in constitution or implicitly practiced in society, every nation has their own language policy regulating which languages are spoken in which situation. But there is an anomaly in de jure policy and de facto practice.
It looks like that states can impose monolingualism by constitutional provisions, but there are also multilingual practices in society. Conversely, there are bilingual or multilingual policies in laws, but there are monolingual practices. This is a paradoxical situation.  Also, even as there are constitutional provisions of a national language, there have been violent riots against the particular language policy in several countries, including India. In this sense, the state alone cannot enforce a policy of a particular national language. Most times, de jure policy alone may not work.
To put it in a nutshell, the use of a language is natural and is guided by its usage, but legislation can also regulate it. For this reason governments of nations should consider this case as urgent, have to plan a sound language policy, and put it into practice.  
What next?
Two opposing predictions can be done about the future of languages in the new millennium, therefore. In one case, we are heading towards monolingual practice that leads to linguistic imperialism.
In another case, we are practising multilingualism by recognising every language as the cultural heritage of a particular linguistic community. On the one hand, once colonial countries are trying to sustain their cultural legacy through their languages in their former colonies, and on the other, the decolonised nations also want to use their own indigenous languages.
I wonder what language policy can be adopted in Nepal in these conflicting situations.

(Dhamala is Professor of English, at TU) 

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