Education, Development, and Change
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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hegemony of Language

LANGUAGE has been a subject of interest not only for linguists but also for anthropologists, biologists and culture-study specialists. During different periods of history, fundamental questions have been raised regarding the nature and function of language.

One school of thought believed that language was a ‘neutral’ phenomenon. It was a passive transmitter of ideas and reflected what happens in a society. Language was thus viewed as a tool whose sole purpose was to communicate ideas, emotions and information.

In the past, language was studied in isolation and there were judgmental views on different languages. With the passage of time, language’s relation with society was focused on. A number of linguists explored the direct relevance of various social factors to vocabulary, grammar and phonology. Some of these social factors included age, gender, social class, religion and education. Studies suggest the dominance of society over language.

A revolutionary step in understanding the nature and function of language came in the form of a significant contribution by anthropologists Sapir and Whorf. Sapir offered the view that “the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation”. This radical view helped people see language as an active force that was not passive and neutral in nature.

According to Whorf, “The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organised by our minds and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds.”

This revolutionary hypothesis helped re-determine the functions of language which was no longer considered a passive tool of communication but a highly social and political phenomenon.

To further explore the role of language we need to study the role of social institutions in the construction of social reality. Social institutions include family, schools, religion, the media, etc. These institutions construct, validate and perpetuate certain stereotypes as a part of the construction of reality. All these institutions use language as an important tool in the construction of reality. Language is linked with issues of power and politics.

The Italian thinker and political activist Antonio Gramsci found an interesting link between language and hegemony. In his seminal work The Prison Notebooks, Gramsci refers to political and civil society that make use of coercive and discursive approaches for the purposes of hegemony. The discursive approach makes use of culture, of which language is obviously an important component. The impact of this approach is so subtle and effective that the controlled groups welcome this control by consent. According to African novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the ‘cultural bomb’ “annihilate[s] a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland”.

Realising fully the potential of language in the process of control, imperialist powers always made use of it to maintain control. This was obvious, for example, when in pre-partition India, Lord Macaulay advocated the case of the English language against Sanskrit and Arabic by stating his objective of forming “a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and intellect.”

What should our response to English be? There are theoretically three options available to us. The first is to reject English and cling to the native language. The second is to embrace English and disown our native language. Both these options are based on an approach where out of two languages one language has to be removed. And both options lead to the denial of a multiplicity of viewpoints. The third option is learning English without rejecting one’s own language.

Keeping in view the significance of English and its value in obtaining jobs and information, it is not wise to close the door on it. We can, however, teach English by employing critical pedagogy. English language teaching needs the complete revamping of its objectives, books and terms of assessment. It is through a critical treatment of language teaching that we can produce students with critical thinking, who can then identify hegemonic designs and reverse the discourse. The Indian novelist Raja Rao puts it so well: “One has to convey in a language not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own.”

The writer is director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.