Is academic language enough? Social capital and minority languages

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Language education / Questions

When I first listened to Suzanne Talhouk’s Tedx Talk “Don’t Kill Your Language,” I selected the Brazilian Portugese subtitles.  I have been learning Portuguese for the past three months and it made sense to practice my reading comprehension.  But I mostly chose Portuguese because, of the 28 subtitles possible, my heritage language, French, wasn’t an option.  What an ironic way to begin a reflection on the importance of language protectionism!

As a language advocate, I’m accustomed to language protectionism arguments, but what I appreciate most about Talhouk’s work, is that she isn’t preaching to the choir at an academic conference.  She originally gave this talk at TEDxBeirut and is admonishing her peers for elevating the status of English and French over Arabic.  Talhouk gives familiar positions about native language fluency supporting mastery of additional languages (Cummins, 1994), and the emotional link to language and memory (Schroeder & Marian, 2012).  These are widespread logical reasons that we should maintain our heritage languages.  Talhouk herself is a poet and also invokes Khalil Gibran’s work and complexity of thought in their language.  Essentially her argument is that Lebanese people are deciding that their language is less professionally and artistically valuable than English and French. She urges her peers to publish research, create art, and engage deeply in their language.  Don’t take my word for it, let her tell you about it directly.

My biggest idol in language revitalization work is New Zealand’s Maori advocacy community.  So much of the success of New Zealand’s Maori renaissance is due to the language immersion and korero maori community.  It’s possible to study from preK through university and receive all of your instruction in te reo maori.  New Zealand has strong national policy to protect te reo maori and support the work of language advocates.  Picture the language revitalization platform as a three-legged table: policy and education institutions are significant.  In my native Louisiana, we have similarly strong policy and education movements for French heritage language.  New Zealand however, has made greater advances in their third prong: social capital of the minority language.

In my parents’ generation, we have artists and language activists like Zachary Richard and David Chéramie, who committed to writing in French before, and in great anticipation that, we would eventually be able to read their work in our language.  They were sowing the seeds for social capital and heritage language legacy.  Where New Zealand has created more momentum, is in inspiring my generation of artists to be equally committed to language activism.  Maori Television (especially their Te Reo channel) and Huia Publishing are institutional examples of promoting social capital of the minority language.   They produce a wide range of programs, texts and develop maori-speaking artists to reach broader audiences in te reo.  Rob Ruha, is a contemporary singer-songwriter, who writes traditional waitas, choreographs kapa haka and writes pop songs in te reo.  He believes strongly that he is writing in te reo to reflect our generation’s experiences and inspire our children’s generation to enjoy and value te reo.

My children, now 10 and 7, are used to the fact that, whenever given the choice of language, we choose French.  From the check-out at Home Depot and the ATM, to our movie audio tracks, musicians and greeting cards, we’re intentional about making memories in our language.  Speaking, and certainly raising my children in a minority language in the US, requires an effort on my part.   The irony is not lost on me though, that I’m writing this blog in English and not French.  Duly noted.

If you are a champion for your minority language, ask yourself, who are the artists, poets, singers, actors, who are carrying the social status of your language for the next generations?  Then ask what legacy are you leaving the next generation now via social media platforms that will keep your language relevant?  Talhouk cautions Arabic-speakers in their use of social media.  She gives the example of transliterating an Arabic word in a tweet. “Whatever you do, don’t write Arabic in Roman characters! That’s a disaster!  It’s not a language.”  Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hindi are just a handful of languages that succumbed to Roman script long before the influence of social media.  On that point, she may be fighting a losing battle.

I would love to follow Suzanne on Twitter, but, as you can imagine, her feed is entirely in Arabic.

The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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