Cultural Imperialism II – Marriage, Language Learning & Culture


Picture from, courtesy Google

Not too long ago, UNESCO celebrated the International Day of the Mother Tongue. It concluded that half of the 6,000 languages spoken today will be extinct by the end of this century. When this happens, a wealth of knowledge and experience is bound to be lost, says the report.

We can snigger at the figures as one of those UN findings from the void. But if you belong to an ethnic minority anywhere in the world, this is a clear and present danger. As Marcus Garvey puts it “a people without the knowledge of their past history is like a tree without roots.” Where would you be if your cultural identity disintegrates?

The developing world is perhaps the worst hit with the imploding linguistic and cultural extinction. One good reason perhaps is that the world has truly become a global village. In a global village, there are no boundaries and endogamy is becoming an archaic practice. People meet and intermarriages happen. In America for example the number of Jewish people intermarrying rose from 28% in the 1970s to 47% in the 1990s. This is breaking an ancient cultural practice that has kept the people closely knit since the exile to the fall of the northern kingdom.

Mixed marriages raise culturally diverse children, but it also comes with the challenge of which language the children should adopt? In my lay view and personal experience, two things affect this choice. The first is who of the two parents spend more time with the children. The second is the social milieu in which the children are raised. Have you observed how children of immigrants pick up the native accents of the language of instruction easier than those of their parents? This is perhaps as a result of the Chomsky’s theory on language acquisition called the Language Acquisition Device, LAD.

Where (as in Africa and other parts of the developing world), the language is not codified this is very hard. Non-written languages would die faster than written ones. Languages used for instruction would survive better than ones that are simply spoken. There are more non-native speakers of English today than the native speakers (including the writer).

This makes English a colonial language even though subconsciously.  If you check your locality, you may identify one, and in developing nations, it is likely to be the first language of instruction. Educational systems that do nothing about preserving indigenous languages help kill them off. While growing up as pupils in schools, we were forbidden to speak in our mother tongue and forced to communicate in the language of first instruction, then later in English. This creates a false impression that the mother tongue is inferior to the other two and it is not uncommon today to speak in our mother tongue to a younger person and watch them answer in the language of instruction even when they could speak the mother tongue.

This leads to the extinction of such languages. Studies continue to show that children learn better in the language they use at home. In Africa, mother tongue education is used only in the first three years of elementary education.

There are several pros and cons to this. Languages that are dynamic (grow by borrowing from others and assimilating new concepts) would tend to survive. Those that are rigid would die off as well as the non-codified ones. Yet, a report on intermarriages show a nexus between the success of a child and their racial or ethnic self-esteem.

…to be continued


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