Whenever there is a protest or demonstration on the issue of language on our political stage, we tend to think of it as a futile exercise; it must be the handiwork of some neglected politician desperately trying to stay in the limelight by unleashing a horde of lumpen into the streets. But this may not be true. Language wars are found on every continent and some of the people leading them are national leaders.
Take, for instance, a person of the eminence of former French president Jacques Chirac, who walked out of a meeting of the Unice (Organization of Employers) because a Frenchman addressed the group in English. In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic exhorted Albanians to speak Serbian. They refused. This aggravated the conflict in the region.
Linguistic conflict can take various forms. Newly independent nations define their identity in terms of their language; it is the repository of their culture and they try to promote it as a symbol at the expense of other languages. Secondly, in countries where there are large groups of immigrants, the language of the region may face a challenge. California has gone through many postures in its attempt to balance the claims of Spanish and English.
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Alaska presents an interesting picture of a conflict between English as the majority language and the aboriginal languages of the region. There are at least 225 federally recognized tribes in Alaska and they have their own languages. In 1998, the state passed an English-only law, requiring civil officials to use English when communicating with the public. The law had the support of Alaskans for a common language. It required local government officials to use English in speaking to people in rural Alaska, even when the latter do not speak English. In 1999, the US superior court suspended enactment of the law. In the meantime, an association called Alaska Natives challenged the law in court. Their attorney said the law would lead to “cultural genocide”. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court. In November 2007, the highest Alaskan court struck down the English-only law. The court found that the law violated the fundamental constitutional rights to free speech.
Canada was witness to a major battle between two titans, French and English. In the 19th century, schools in Quebec were run by French Catholics and British Protestants, each group supporting its chosen language.
In 1977, the state of Quebec passed Bill 101, known also as the French Language Charter. In the 1970s, nationalist groups had been demanding measures to give French its rightful place in the province. In 1976, Parti Quebecois came to power and the next year, the government passed Bill 101. All children were required to attend French schools. Likewise, all newcomers were to choose French schools for their children. There were also rules restricting the use of English in business. In March 2005, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that linguistic majorities have no constitutional right to demand education in the minority language. French-speaking Quebeckers were thus prevented from choosing English schools.
In 2000, the government appointed a commission under Gerald Larose to study the status of French in the province. The report found French was in sound health in the state. Larose said, “French is no longer the property of the majority. It has become the language of everybody.” He even recommended that the teaching of English should be improved. The language policy in Quebec has been successful and can be a model for countries having large minorities and facing the problem of accommodating a minority language.
In India, there is a kind of triangular conflict involving mother tongue as icon, Hindi as a token of national identity, and English as the vehicle of knowledge. These languages should be left alone to play these roles. With the present-day explosion in knowledge, the decisions that we take have to be practicable and not dictated by sentiment. At the national level, English continues to be the dominant language of higher education, mass communication and business. It is this hegemony of English that the states are protesting against. For Indian students and scientists, access to knowledge of developments in medicine, technology and business can only be found through English. Most parents see English as the language of opportunity and, therefore, to success in life. They are not interested in politically correct choices.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org