[lg policy] blog: Language Policy and Development: Lost in Translation
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Thu Jul 5 15:11:00 UTC 2012
Language Policy and Development: Lost in Translation
Seth Kaplan <http://www.fragilestates.org/author/seth/> | July 4, 2012
[image: Language Literacy Development
Language is one of the most neglected areas in the development field. It
barely registers on any agenda to help poor countries despite its
importance to a number of crucial areas and it being a barrier to progress
in many fragile states. Why is this?
Language is how individuals communicate, acquire knowledge, and work with
others. It is how societies pass on culture and institutions, import new
ideas and technology, and forge links among members. It can unite as well
as divide, act as an instrument of empowerment as well as a barrier to
advancement, and influence how societies evolve.
*Language Policy in Less Developed Countries*
In the least developed countries, language policy should have two basic
1) Maximize the ability of a population to acquire knowledge so as to
increase education levels and productivity;
2) Maximize the cohesion of a population so as to increase its ability to
cooperate to promote national development.
These are among the most important
fragile states, which are typically plagued by social
low education levels.
Yet, many countries have policies that work against both these aims. By
using a national—European—language as the basis of education and
government, they entrench elites in power, and reduce the ability of the
general population to acquire knowledge. Half a century after colonialism
ended in Africa, for instance, English, French, and Portuguese still matter
much more than African languages in most countries even though they are not
well spoken by the rural population and urban underclass, which consists of
the majority of people. The disadvantages the poor face directly contribute
to the stark inequities<http://www.fragilestates.org/2012/04/16/inequality-fragile-states-and-the-new-mdgs/>and
plague such countries.
*The Disconnect Between Language and People*
Such policies hold back whole countries by undermining indigenous cultures
and knowledge, and forcing people to become dependent on imported
institutions, language, and concepts that they are unfamiliar with. As Kwesi
Kwaa Prah <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwesi_Kwaa_Prah>, Director of
for Advanced Studies of African
Society<http://www.casas.co.za/Default.aspx>in Cape Town, argued in a
Paper for the 2004 Human Development
it is in local languages that
Africans display their core abilities and creativity within their
environments. . . . These languages represent the socio-cultural and
historical repositories of the overall cultural patterns and usages of
African people. In other words, African languages are today possibly the
most crucial factor in the propagation and development of culture, science
and technology based on known and historical foundations rooted in the
practices of the people. . . . African development projects and efforts
have the greatest chance of success if innovative ideas and their
communication are couched in indigenous languages, which reach the rural
masses more immediately and more directly.
The disconnect between language and people is not unique to Africa. Many
postcolonial states that have elites who see the poor not as a brethren to
be uplifted but undesirables meant to be kept down and who see the
maintenance of European institutions as crucial to preserving their rule
have had similar problems. Few Latin America countries promoted indigenous
languages until recently. The Pakistan
English (and Urdu) to Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, and Baluchi.
Minorities—such as the Berbers and Kurds in North Africa and the
disadvantaged whenever the dominant ethnic group suppresses their language.
*A Language Strategy to Promote Development*
Of course not all languages have enough speakers to be made a priority. But
those with millions of speakers—such as Hausa and Punjabi—ought to play a
crucial role in education and government. And an effort to harmonize
languages which enjoy a high level of mutual intelligibility into a common
standard (something many European countries did in the 19th century) will
increase their potential for wider usage and provide economies of scale for
writers, publishers, and translators.
Investing in translating and circulating important foreign books will
increase the attractiveness of local languages and allow a larger number of
people to access knowledge. The Arab world, for instance, needs to invest
far greater resources in Arabic
science, technology, and literature translation.
More inclusiveness with language will create more inclusive regimes, open
to more citizens, and more geared to the needs of the general population
(rather than just the elites). If handled properly, it will promote social
engender greater state legitimacy. It might even improve governance by
state institutions more
In the short term, governments should make far greater use of the most
important local languages. They could, for instance, use them for primary
education and introduce a plan to adopt them for greater use at the
regional level. In the long term, policies should seek to realize the use
of these important languages at all levels of education, within parts of
government, and in all areas of social life. In divided countries, there
may continue to be a role for colonial languages at the national level and
in some universities. But such languages should not be the dominant force
India, for instance, has emphasized the use of the mother tongue as medium
of instruction in
leading to 41 languages being used in the
one place or another. States are organized according to language to
maximize the use of the largest tongues. The most widely spoken local
language—Hindi—has the same status as English at the national level. Media
of all types—from newspapers to books to movies—proliferate in local
languages. Although English plays an important role at the top of
society—both advantaging the country in international competition while
disadvantaging lower classes who don’t have easy access to education in
it—it is not alone.
In contrast, in most of
places such as
Pakistan <http://www.fragilestates.org/tag/pakistan/>*) it is hard to
imagine a non-fluent speaker of the colonial tongue rising to an elite
position in government. There are few successful novels, few advanced
education opportunities, and few newspapers in African languages.
As I wrote in *Fixing Fragile
Instead of forcing whole populations to learn foreign languages, much
greater effort should be made to translate world knowledge into major
indigenous tongues such as Arabic, Hausa, and Punjabi. . . . Certainly, no
society that has successfully developed has depended as heavily on foreign
resources, foreign political models, foreign languages, and foreign laws as
fragile states typically do today.
All successful developing countries have depended on their own language and
sociocultural base for development, importing Western ideas and technology
as needed, and integrating these with local institutions in a hybrid
Many in Africa (and elsewhere) understand this, but in contrast to places
such as Indonesia, where language policy has planned a prominent role in
nation building and
early on, few countries have sought to use language policy to promote
*Elites Stand in the Way*
Elites have often stood in the way of such change, seeing it as both a
practical threat to their positions in society as well as a psychological
threat to their own self-image as replacements for their former colonizers.
As Dr. Peter P.
professor at the University of Buffalo, explained in his oft cited 1975
article on “Colonialism and the Two Publics in
The Japanese do not strive to speak English or French as well as an
Englishman and an American or as a Frenchman. They see themselves as
different from them. The African bourgeois, born out of the colonial
experience, is very uncomfortable with the idea of being different from his
former colonizers in matters regarding education, administration, or
technology. One suspects that he is unconsciously afraid that he may not be
qualified to be an effective replacer of the former colonizers.
Although ethnic and religious divisions often plague postcolonial states,
the gap between elites and their populations can be worse. As long as
elites use their control over language policy and state institutions to
entrench their position at the expense of the population, their countries
are unlikely to reduce their great inequities and social divisions,
unlikely to improve their governance, and unlikely to inclusively develop.
* It is worth asking whether Bangladesh’s much better record in promoting
social development when compared to Pakistan has anything to do with its
far greater use of a local language that is widely understood. Certainly,
the greater social cohesion this has spawned has something to do with it.
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