The magic of ignorance - English a false prophet

Francis M Hult fmhult at
Thu Jan 20 19:29:25 UTC 2005

Finland is an interesting case from the point of view of postcolonial
language policy development.  The strengthening of Finnish was a big deal
considering the standing of Swedish as a colonial language,
particularly in Finland which was essentially a Swedish colony (though some
might disagree with applying this term) from the 12th century until 1809.
The position of Finnish arose along with a strong movement for
Finnish nationalism in the early nineteenth century which met with a great
deal of resistance from the Swedish elite.  There was also an
intensification of Finnish national identity in the face of Russian rule
beginning in 1809 and the Finnish language gradually become more central in
Finnish society by the mid-ninteenth century, including it's use in
education.  There are many nuances to the story, of course, but the set of
social movements and the historical circumstances under which Finnish came
out as a strong national language in the face of two different colonial
powers is fascinating as a postcolonial 'success story'.  One of the most
notable aspect of 'success' is the official Swedish/Finnish bilingualism
where the former colonial language was kept in check while still being
maintained.  There may be a lot to learn from the Finnish case, which does
seem to have many parallels with some other recent postcolonial cases, in
terms of the process through which the status of a colonial language can be
shifted and balanced.

On the other hand, I suppose it's hard to compare Swedish and English as
colonial languages.  Although Finland is officially bilingual, it's is much
less so in practice.  A friend of mine once told me that bilingualism in
Finland means that Finns speak Finnish and Swedes speak Finnish.  There is
no geopolitical pressure to become highly proficient in Swedish.  Last time
I was in Åbo/Turku (a bilingual city with a Swedish language university) I
couldn't even order food or pay at a store in Swedish but I could do it in
English!  So I wonder, as was brought up in a recent posting on the list,
to what extent English can be balanced in relation to other languages in
postcolonial contexts as long as English continues to be associated with
social and economic success.  What role can/should nationalism play?

As an aside, this is an issue with which another Nordic country, Sweden, is
currently engaged (and which I am currently researching).  A language
policy initiative from 2002, which is still pending government discussion,
aims at strengthening and promoting Swedish as a national language while
fostering the other languages of Sweden as well as English language


On Thu, Jan 20, 2005 at 04:43:15PM +0100, Trond Trosterud wrote:
> 19.1.2005 kello 11:56, Anthea Fraser Gupta kirjoitti:
>  Before we look at any education system, we need to interrogate the term
> >'mother tongue'. It is not the case that Finland (...) "Basic
> >education (...)
> >is conducted in the mother tongue, for all
> >pupils". If a child who is a native speaker of (for example) Italian or
> >Bengali happens to be in a school in location X in Finland, they will
> >get the same education as everyone else, not in Italian or Bengali. To
> >do anything else would be impractical. 'Mother tongue' is often
> >shorthand for 'dominant native language of community', and should not
> >necessarily be interpreted as meaning 'native language' (a language
> >spoken before any other is acquired).
> That is true, and 'dominant native lg of community was also what i had
> in mind. But in the Finnish system, the trditional minorities do get
> their education in the mother tongue, even in villeges where the
> constitute the minority:
> 1. The Swedish 5% minority get their whole schooling in Swedish
> 2. The Northern Sámi minority (3000 speakers) get instruction in many
> of the school subjects in Sámi
> 3. Many Russian children get their basic education in Russian
> 3. Italian, Bengali etc. children (immigrants) have the right to
> so-called mother tongue education, that is they learn to read and write
> Italian or Bengali for 2-3 hours a week. But no, you are of course
> right, these groups will not (and cannot) get a full education in the
> language of their parents, since there will not be a society to back up
> the lg in question.
> Thus, I talked about native language on the society level, and not on
> the individual level. But the point remains: The basic problem of all
> to many educational systems is that they build not upon the language of
> the society (be it country, region or village), but upon the language
> of the former colonial power. This is closely linked to another
> problem: The failure of recognising than an international language such
> as English may be introduced, and acquired on an advanced level, even
> if it taught as a foreign language, instead of as a language of
> instruction. The education planners do not need to choose between
> having children understand when the teacher teach math, history and
> chemistry and teaching the children English. The can do both, as long
> as they do not do it during the same class hours.
> >Where there is a dominant community language (as there is at national
> >level in Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, UK, France, USA, etc.) there
> >is a default assumption that state provided basic education will be in
> >that dominant language. This is often a fairly obvious choice, and not
> >particularly controversial (though many people would like to see more
> >opportunities for minority linguistic groups to maintain their
> >ancestral
> >languages). National unity in state-provided education is a reasonable
> >desire of many governments and populations.
> >
> >In many multilingual societies, there is no uncontested dominant
> >community language at national level, and sometimes not even at
> >regional
> >level. In India, for example, there is no language other than English
> >which is equally (and, socially, inequally) the property of all
> >regions.
> >In such countries which have a history of European colonisation, the
> >coloniser's language may be less contested that any  single other
> >language.
> If we take Africa first, we see that the main rationale behind their
> school system is their colonial past, not their multilingualism.
> Monolingual countries, such as Burundi and Rwanda, still have their
> primary and secondary education in French, and not in Rundi or
> Kinyarwanda. Thus, what is "not particlularly uncontroversial" in
> Finland, Sweden, etc. must be argued for in Burundi. The same
> discussion was raised in Finland hundred years ago, when they changed
> the school system from the former colonial language (Swedish) into the
> native language.
> And even in multilingual countries picking out say 5-10 languages for
> implementation in the school system will grant the vast majority of the
> children education in mathematics, reading, writing, science, etc. in a
> language they speak and understand (either their mother tongue or a
> regional language they speak as a 2nd language). This is in stark
> contrast to the position of the former colonial language. The result of
> the present policy, say in sub-saharan Africa, is that the classes
> where pupils are supposed to learn science, maths, and the history of
> their own country, they instead learn French and English (a friend of
> mine from Sri Lanka told me how strange the feeling was when he first
> visited England, and "arrived home", to the country of the world, the
> architecture, flora, and mail box shapes that he knew from his school
> books only).
> >What is striking about the Northern European countries (and I single
> >out
> >here Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands), with their
> >superb education systems, is that they have a clear educational focus
> >on
> >the dominant community language, while at the same time teaching
> >foreign
> >languages (especially English) to a very high level. I am a bit
> >confused
> >about how Trond Trosterud is suggesting other countries respond to
> >this,
> >and I think we might be in agreement.
> [I wouldn't say "superb", neither ironically nor in earnest. There are
> always things to correct, and the recent PISA investigation certainly
> does not place my home country Norway anywhere near a top :-) But I
> think you have captured the essence of the Northern European system.]
> I don't think I have my strongest opponents on this list, to the
> contrary, I too, think we agree. What I do see is that i have opponents
> in educational departments in former colonies, and among their
> "advisers" that are brought in from their former colony powers. The
> reason I wrote my letter was the argumentation that was *quoted* on the
> list, and I wanted to offer some arguments to use whenever bumping into
> such arguments in real life.
> My suggestion to other countries is that they educate children in a
> language they understand (how many languages to prepare education in
> will then be a practical question, but if there is a will, there will
> also be a way). So in that sense, yes, as coming from Northern Europe,
> I think what I see from our school system is something that can be
> recommended, when it comes to language policy.)
> >In some countries (e.g. Malaysia) where there are many ethno-linguistic
> >communities and two languages with local traditions of education and
> >use
> >as a lingua france (Malay and English), one of which (Malay) is
> >probably
> >the most common native language in the country a bilingual education
> >system of some sort for everyone seems to make sense.
> If pupils have Malay as their mother tongue, then the experiences from
> e.g. Finland should suggest giving Malay a strong position, and teach
> English as a foreign language (on an advanced level). What to do with
> bilingual Malay - local lg children should be decided upon as a result
> of a concrete evaluation of the linguistic situation.
> >In other places
> >(e.g. Chile) with no internal tradition of English then the Nordic
> >model
> >of English taught to everyone as a foreign language makes more sense.
> Yes. And it is then important that English is not allowed to come in
> and destroy the national educational system, as it in essence does in
> former colonies, but that it is taught as a foreign language.
> All this positive things being said about Northern Europe, I must
> confess that our most skilled English teacher (and German, French
> teacher) is the television. Unlike countries like France, Germany,
> Turkey, Russia, (Chile?), we never dub foreign television programs or
> people interviewed on the news, instead we subtitle. This provides for
> a couple of hours extra teaching a day...
> >Malaysia, though not as rich as the Nordic countries, is highly
> >developed and can deliver mass education efficiently to the entire
> >popularion.
> Yes, no doubt about that. And this is not an issue of money, but of
> will and politics.
> >  There are many places where this is not possible, and where
> >it is not feasible to teach anything other than  a locally dominant
> >language to the majority population. In India, for example, the
> >priority
> >is clearly to teach the dominant STATE (not national) language in basic
> >education.
> Yes. And India is not a country in the sense Burundi, Latvia or Finland
> are countries. India is a continent, with a serious lg policy and
> educational policy, when it comes to basic level education (if I were
> minister of education I would perhaps pay some more attention to the
> minority languages within each state, but that discussion needs to be
> kept on a more detailed level than we do here). The problem with India
> is rather that Hindi leaves the scene to English only in too many
> domains.
> > This was discussed by Jean D'souza in connection with the
> >education (in Marathi) of street children and child workers in the
> >Indian city of Pune: these children were not getting education in
> >either
> >their mother tongues (often), nor in either of the national languages
> >of
> >India (Hindi and English), but they were getting basic education in the
> >language that optimised their access to the governmental and cultural
> >structures they most needed.
> So, let's hope they understood what was said in this optimised
> language, then... :-) (perhaps this was what you meant)
> >India has not been as successful as Finland
> >(or as Malaysia) in equalising access to education, so it remains the
> >case that access to English and (in areas outside its region of
> >dominance, and to a lesser extent) Hindi is associated with social
> >privilege.
> I would like to stress that the educational system in the Nordic
> countries was established in a period of our history when the countries
> were very poor (Norwegian sailors won freight contracts due to their
> exceptional low wages). A good basic educational system must rely upon
> local forces (for writing textbooks, teaching the pupils, etc.), and
> their wages will reflect the local level. Making a competitive
> educational system should thus be much easier than, say, making a
> competitive army and airforce, since in the latter case the weapons
> must be bought on the international market, to international prices.
> Also, there is a hen-and-egg reasoning in the situation you describe:
> "Only the English speaking are rich, and we will give education only to
> the ones speaking English => only the rich/privileged people will be
> able to utilise the educational system". Language planning and planning
> of education are political actions, the key question being "for whom".
> Politicians may of course build a school for the social and/or
> linguistic elite, as they most often do, but they should not be allowed
> to get away with arguments claiming that this is in the interest of the
> whole people, or in order to increase wealth by the poor, or other
> Orwellian phrases.
> >My message is that places are different, and that local needs must be
> >met.
> They certainly are, and they certainly must. No disagreement here.
> But some things are always the same. If, in a region (be it monolingual
> or with a dominating lingua franca spoken by all the children, I see no
> cultural or political reasons for having them learn their basic
> multiplication table in a language they do not understand (other than
> the grim heritage of imperialism). If the children are bilingual, one
> may always argue that some language is more suited than another to be
> used as lg of instruction (according to the local situation), but no
> child is without language, unless the educational system forces it to
> attend school without any.
> Trond.
> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
> Trond Trosterud                                        t +47 7764 4763
> Institutt for språkvitskap, Det humanistiske fakultet  m +47 950 70140
> N-9037 Universitetet i Tromsø, Noreg                   f +47 7764 4239
> Trond.Trosterud (a)
> ----------------------------------------------------------------------

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