Classroom Activities: Celebrating International Mother Language Day

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Today (February 21, 2011) is the 11th annual International Mother Language Day.  It’s the day that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) asks us to recognize and honor the strength that linguistic diversity brings us. 

 This blog has already highlighted a number of ways that linguistic diversity benefits us.  See, for example, several previous posts demonstrating the benefits to the brain of knowing or learning a second language and a number of posts about what we can learn from language differences about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.  As you read these posts, you will start to see the way that language filters the world around us, and you may start to see one more reason why English-Only isn’t a good policy.  In addition to the benefits we get from knowing a second or third language, there is significant benefit to mankind to having speakers of other languages around to help us understand how the brain really works.  When we legislate against the use of other languages, we endanger their survival.

As this United Nations link explains, the February 21st date honors the anniversary of a 1952 attack on students in Dhaka who were “demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages.”  In an event much like some of the ones we’ve seen in neighboring countries over the last few weeks, they were shot and killed by police.  The event was horrific, but people’s languages are important to them, and the fact that there is a long history of conquering governments trying to rein people in by obliterating their mother tongue should tell us something about why.  If they weren’t important to people’s understanding of the world and to their understanding of themselves, these governments wouldn’t waste so much time an energy on obliterating conquered people’s mother languages.  (Just ask Native Americans, African Americans, or the Irish, to name a few that hit close to home.)

As we recognize International Mother Language Day, it’s important to recognize the contributions that linguistic diversity brings us.  It’s also important to engage students with activities that illustrate some of the problems with [insert your favorite language]-only policies.  In our own country, we are supposed to guarantee people the freedom of speech, yet English-Only policies would severely restrict the ways in which we would be allowed to speak.  It doesn’t seem very American or very democratic. 

So one way to engage students on this language issue is through your social studies curriculum.  What does it mean when we devalue a language or prohibit its use?  How does that serve to control groups of people?  In what cases have attempts to obliterate a language succeeded?  What have we lost when they have? When you obliterate a language, does that mean that everybody will talk the same?  Consider, for example, the difficulty that scholars have had in deciphering Mayan language and culture.  Ask your students why American slaves were required to learn English, and what survival strategies they might have used to maintain secrecy while complying with such English-only policies.  Research a little on how the Irish tried to maintain their language through hedge schools.  What kinds of governments tend to be the most restrictive in terms of language use?  Why?

Another way to engage your students on International Mother Language Day is through literature.  Ask them to consider the effects that translation has on our story telling practices.  What happens to a story when we translate from one language to another? What do we lose in translation?  Is it just style, or do we sometimes lose content, too? You don’t have to teach a foreign language or a world lit class to do this.  Are you students reading Beowolf?  If so, they are probably reading a translation from Old English. (The sound patterns and grammar of English have changed considerably since Beowolf first emerged in our culture.) What effect do they think the translation from earlier forms of English has had on this epic poem?  What has been lost culturally that has to be explained to them?  If you’re teaching a foreign language, you may have other stories that you could also incorporate into this discussion.  If you’re teaching younger kids, you should consider looking up the origins of the fairy tales and other stories that you use in your classroom.  How does the meaning change when you know the origins of the story?

You can also engage your students through your science and health curriculum.  Why are we better off, scientifically, if we have access to speakers of languages that are radically different from the ones that are used by governments?  What might these languages tell us about the how the brain works?  How might that change if the speakers of these languages were monolingual, bilingual, or multilingual? How might second language acquisition help us fight dementia?   Why?  What does first language acquisition do to our perceptual system?  Consider using videos of Patricia Kuhl or Steven Pinker from the TED for these activities, and I’m sure you’ll have even more questions than the ones I’ve outlined here. 

In my own college classes, I often pose this problem to my students, citing the Article 2 of the United Nation’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights, which says, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”  As Jon Reyhner and Navin Singh (Northern Arizona University) explain, Article 2, combined with articles on education, have sometimes been interpreted to mean that those from minority language groups have the right to education in that language. 

Since my own students are usually education majors, I sometimes ask them to discuss how they would handle such a mandate in their own classroom.  Some of them completely miss the point and skip straight to a diatribe about how it just wouldn’t be feasible to accommodate everybody.  (Depending on where they teach, they might have a point.  Teachers regularly tell me that they lose out on wonderful opportunities to engage their students due to current educational policies and the ever-growing tendency to teach only the minimum set out by standardized tests.)  However, my students are also asked to consider what it might mean if we started treating things that most people consider to be dialects as “minority languages.”  After all, linguists know that the reasons we call some things languages and some things dialects often have nothing at all to do with linguistic differences.

It’s a complicated issue, but this question often generates a thoughtful and stimulating discussion. To the extent that language variation—even within a single language—represents different patterns of culture and thought, there is a lot we can learn from it.  More importantly, treating the speakers who exhibit this variation with respect is more likely to earn you the kind of trust from your students that is needed in order to achieve a quality education.  Understandably, some students are initially highly resistant to this question, but many later admit that it changed the way they thought about languages and dialects in profound and important ways.  A few even come up with ideas on how to incorporate this information in their own classrooms.  To me, it’s well worth the classroom time. 





About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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