The Preciousness of Mother Tongues
The Connection between Language and Well-being
For many of us, the language we speak is one of the things we take most for granted, much like breathing. And like air, that language plays an important role in sustaining us. It becomes part of our self-identity. It unites us with those who speak it, and can separate us from those who do not. It connects us with our past and is a tool we use to build a better future. It is an instrument we rely on to know our world, and to be known by it. What would we do without it?
Unfortunately, throughout history, too many people have had to answer this very question. They’ve been separated from their mother tongue by circumstance or state. Sometimes, the choice was theirs made freely. At other times, the choice was merely the lesser of two evils.
Take, for instance, a Yiddish speaker in Germany just prior to and during the Holocaust. Jews quickly learned not to speak Yiddish on the street, as it could lead to persecution and eventually death. Imagine the fear of something as simple as speaking!
Within the United States, speaking a language other than English in certain communities can attract stares of curiosity, or serve as an excuse for others to vocalize their own intolerance. Many young immigrant children quickly pick up on cues from the dominant English-speaking culture, and experience embarrassment when their parents attempt to speak to them in public in their native language. These children resist their unique opportunity to grow up bilingual due to a desire to fit in.
Native American Languages
In general, the melting pots of the United States and Canada have historically stripped entire native cultures of their tongue as part of a larger process of forced assimilation. One proponent of this policy hoped to “kill the Indian, save the man.” This was accomplished in many communities by taking Native American children from their families and sending them to Indian boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native languages. One such school was located in my home state, White’s Indiana Labor Institute at Wabash. It opened its doors in 1861 to students for three-year terms of study.
The model for this and 24 other such off-reservation boarding schools was the Carlisle Indian Boarding School. According to the Native-owned non-profit Mending the Sacred Hoop, “The most debilitating message (that Native students received) was one of self-hatred.” Students at these schools were mandated to abandon not only their language, but their traditional dress and hairstyles, as seen in the photo above. In addition to this forced assimilation, students were often victims of violence from school personnel. Disconnected from family, language, and cultural ties, generations of native children could no longer share much of their parents and grandparents’ ways, as they had become foreign to them. Traditional Native cultures began to die.
Languages of the Former Soviet Union
This is a common trend in many colonialist societies and occurs even in those that aspire to be “anti-colonialist”. The Soviet Union was one such example. Initially, the Soviet authorities encouraged the growth of local languages throughout much of the 1920s. However, due to issues of practicality of governance and the need to promote a common identity, Russian became the preferred language of government, business, and education throughout the country.
The result: many non-Russians began to lose the ability to speak their native tongue, or were never taught it in the first place. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a dearth of intelligentsia who spoke languages such as Kazakh, Kyrgyz, etc. The new national leaders of the former Soviet republics often spoke Russian better than their own national language!
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, language politics began to shift. There is now societal pressure to speak Kyrgyz and other titular languages such as Uzbek, Latvian, etc., within their respective republics. Non-Russians who speak Russian at the expense of their “own” language often face ridicule and may be barred from professional advancement in their fields.
In the multi-ethnic country of Singapore, language has also affected peoples’ well-being. After independence in 1965, Singapore promoted the use of English as the language of inter-ethnic communication on the island, which also served as a connection to the larger international community. It also began promoting Mandarin Chinese at the expense of the many other local Chinese dialects, such as Cantonese, Hokkien, Hokka, Teochew, Hainanese, etc. This movement eventually prohibited the use of any Chinese language other than Mandarin in public places and on the airwaves. Today, as a result, grandparents and grandchildren often struggle to understand each other without an intermediary.
Language discrimination today continues in many parts of the world, including in Tibet, where Chinese authorities take ever-increasingly rigid stances against Tibetan expressions of spirituality and culture. In school, many classes in what was historically northeastern Tibet are now shifting to Chinese, except for Tibetan language classes. This is true of classes even in elementary school. Furthermore, China has banned the extra-curricular teaching of Tibetan over the winter holidays, promising harsh legal reprisals for anyone who ignores the ban.
What will be the result of these ever more-oppressive language restrictions? If the above situations are any indicator, the policies in Tibet, if not reversed, will lead to disconnect within families, a loss of cultural identity and even confusion surrounding one’s own self-identity, and perhaps increased rates of suicide and ill-being, as witnessed in many Native American communities today.
A Brighter Future?
However, things can change. For example, today there is greater awareness and interest to support the teaching and preservation of Native American languages, both within Native American communities and beyond. This has born fruit in the first ever feature-length film shot in a Native American language, Sooyii, filmed entirely in Blackfoot. In addition, a classic American western, A Fistful of Dollars, was dubbed recently into Navajo. These are small, yet powerful symbols of the importance indigenous languages play.
Hopefully, such efforts can reverse what many linguists fear will be the extinction of nearly half of the languages spoken in the world today by the end of this century. A myriad of causes have contributed to this potential loss. However, intolerance has played an oversized role in many of these languages’ demise. Here’s hoping that one day soon, each of us upon hearing an unfamiliar language on the street, will greet it with warmth and acceptance. In this way, we will appreciate the languages we still have, and more importantly, the people that speak them.