Tyranny of Language. Condemned to silence

Condemned to silence

Our contributor in Karachi, Md. Ali Khan, has alerted me to what seems to be a fascinating book: The Tyranny of Language in Education by Zubeida Mustafa published by Ushba Books. I’d love to read the book but trying to order it here in Australia has been a reality check on globalization: mission impossible! So, I’ve had to content myself with the summary of the book that is available on the author’s blog. The book’s central argument seems to be that language choice in education in Pakistan – be it the choice of the mother tongue, the national language, or English – is ideologically laden and not primarily, or not at all, driven by educational considerations. Language choices in education have thus become an obstacle to improving education in Pakistan.

Without having read the book and without knowing the Pakistan context well, the argument certainly makes a lot of sense to me. Having just co-edited a special issue of the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism devoted to “Linguistic Diversity and Social Inclusion,” my co-editor, Kimie Takahashi, and I were continuously struck by the tyranny exerted by prescriptive language choices in multilingual contexts. As such, our special issue ended up documenting more exclusion than inclusion. And the most inclusive spaces were those that were linguistically least dogmatic.

By far the most inclusive space described in the pages of that special issue is an evangelical church in Canada catering mostly to Chinese migrants. As the researcher, Huamei Han, describes it, language choice was a non-issue in that context. Where migrants in other contexts, well-documented in research from around the globe, often find themselves condemned to silence because of their lack of familiarity with a narrowly prescribed “power code,” the members of that church are extremely pragmatic when it comes to language choice. Based on the assumption that language choice is secondary to the overall aim of serving god, the church’s inclusive linguistic practices include ample code-switching and the legitimization of all codes as long as they serve the common purpose. Fellows were assigned speaking roles not on the basis of their proficiency but on the basis of the fact that they were good Christians. All these practices which draw on a language ideology of pragmatism where it is not language that matters but the common goals of Christian ministry and service made newcomers not only feel included but also provided them with valuable practice opportunities that supported their language learning, too.

Similarly to the language ideologies operating in another highly inclusive space we’ve featured on Language-on-the-Move before, the Central Library in Vienna, the church described by Han demonstrates that it is possible to escape the tyranny of language in linguistically diverse contexts. The question is how civil society can prioritize common causes over a focus on restrictive language ideologies in a way that is similar to the prioritisation of Christianity in this church?

ResearchBlogging.org Han, Huamei (2011). Social inclusion through multilingual ideologies, policies and practices: a case study of a minority church International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 14 (4), 383-398

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Huamei’s study is such an eye-opener, offering a fresh perspective on the issue of linguistic diversity and social inclusion. Much of literature is often too preoccupied with what does not work, and while that is, of course, important work, they tend to be short of proposing a model that works. One context in which Huamei’s work can inspire us is international conferences where English dominates as the sole language of presentations. I don’t see much wisdom in this trend as we are limiting our own access to knowledge. If our common priority is to produce, share and disseminate our knowledge and experience at a conference, as it is to Huamei’s participants at the church, why shouldn’t we consider every means of achieving this, including inviting presentations in multiple languages? Academics from non-English speaking background can then focus on the quality of research and presentation rather than worrying about how they might sound in their second/foreign/additional language.

    • Couldn’t agree more – academia is indeed a linguistically highly dogmatic space. I’m sure you’ve seen Christoph Demont-Heinrich’s review of Disinventing and reconstituting languages in the most recent issue of the Journal of Sociolinguistics 15(3):

      He [=Suresh Canagarajah] delivers an inspiring call for more democracy and egalitarianism vis-a-vis English. Of course, he does so in an academic book chapter written in a comparatively rigid, standardized English. When international academic journals begin accepting articles written in something other than American or British Standard written English and when advocates of greater democracy and fluidity of language start pushing for this, and creating more egalitarian language contexts (for instance, at academic conferences), then perhaps it won’t feel quite so much like the postmodern etherealism it does here and more like real, concrete, meaningful social change. Why limit disinvention to others and other contexts outside the academic realm? Why not also disinvent and reconstitute language in the least pliable, most hegemonic communicative contexts, including international (English) publishing? These contexts are arguably disproportionately dominating in terms of their influence on the hegemonic rules of language practice in many other contexts. After all, it is these power contexts that are inevitably referred to in arguments about ‘correctness’ and in which, for example, the educational documents and items used to teach language are produced. (p. 401)

  • Huma Tejani

    After reading the posts which have been made against the book Tyranny of language in Education by Zubeida Mustafa, and being a student of sociolinguistics and more importantly living in such a rich multilingual society like Pakistan (Karachi),i have decided to contribute some of my feelings in this regard. first of all i am immensely impressed by the title picture of the book,which is implicitly showing the agony of being silent when you are exposed to many languages right from your childhood while breathing in a multilingual society like Pakistan. i always feel that language is only a source of communication and is a living expression of your beliefs, thoughts and attributes but when i have started studying language and education, it has broaden my horizon of thought system that no language is not only a mean to communicate but many social, political and cultural influences are embedded with it. the book Tyranny of Language and Education has shed the light on the same issues. thanks

  • Nasreen

    Great post!

    The title picture of this book is a truth of my life which i faced during my college education and it is a reality of almost every Pakistani who brought up in multilingual society. English, in which I was lacked, is considered as a tool of communication in good reputable colleges and institution. Now a days, language is not considered as a mean of communication only but it comes under a wider social, historical and cultural context.

    Karachi, Pakistan

  • khan

    It in not only dogmatic but has structures in place to enforce its linguistic demands, by rewarding conformity and penalizing even the slightest deviations. This dogmatism goes beyond the so-called benign academics to the wider sociohistorical, sociopolitical and sociocultural politics.

    I sent an abstract to a conference on Multilingualism in Canada a few years ago and I got the reply in less than ten minutes, ‘sorry, we don’t accept abstracts from Pakistan’ Is this not an extreme?

  • a good work. I shared it with my students and colleagues.

  • The Tyranny of Language in Education in Pakistan by Zubida Mustafa is an interesting book in which the important issue that is confronted to Pakistan has been discussed. This book was discussed in our sociolinguistic class and we enjoyed it. The language choice has become a problem for Pakistan and a headache for the public of Pakistan. It is truth that in Pakistan language is chosen in ideological sense not in educational sense. It will not wrong if we call it a language bias. Language choice should be done properly for whole the population of the country. There should be equal opportunities for all as far as education is concerned. The medium of education must be same for all. But this thing seems impossible in Pakistan. Pakistan has been facing this problem of language choice since its birth.

  • S Fatima

    great post!
    We discussed in our class of Sociolinguistics with Mr. Khan here that how we exclude or include someone by using language only. Language is, by far, the strongest tool which can make or break someone; and this very phenomenon is embedded in our Pakistani society.

    (Karachi, Pakistan.)