67. Can preserving a local language preserve a local culture

Can preserving a local language preserve a local culture?

Will you resist or will you let it go?
Why will you resist and why will you let it go?

Here is an instance of ‘letting it go’, from a fairly neutral ground.

Tamang people living in the outskirt villages of Lalitpur have been converting into Christianity for some years, and the trend is not just growing, it is bouncing and leaping forward. It is interesting to note that, these converts do not sing Biblical hymns in English language. They sing them in Nepali. There are small pocket-sized booklets containing translated verses and hymns from the Bible. Well, they are not doing it through English. Their culture is gone, their heritage is gone, their festivals are gone. They go to church every week, sing and pray in Nepali verses, play guitar and drums. They work in their fields or have jobs. Their children go to nearby schools. They celebrate Christmas. They are not complaining.

And all this while, English language had nothing to do with the loss of their Tamang tradition. This infiltration did not happen through English language. And, they still speak both Tamang and Nepali. Apparently, factors other than imposing a language can indeed cause the loss of culture (and in such a drastic way). Even if the Tamang children get to study through Tamang MoI in their schools, a part of their culture is already lost.

Yes, a dominant language can overshadow minority languages and eventually overshadow minority cultures – but isn’t life a constant struggle for assimilation and accommodation. In the environment, all living beings constantly adapt, and they survive. Communities are no different. Cultures are no different. What used to be a part of culture a 100 years ago, will all but be an essay in the history books, and we would be shouting with astonishment ‘oh ho, yesto pani chalan rahecha hamro baajey ko paalaa ma’.

Language alone is not the factor for cultural loss. There could be hundred other reasons. Even if the government authorizes a multilingual policy which is truly fair and justified for all the multilingual and indigenous communities, can that measure guarantee preservation of the culture and tradition?

Here’s another pricking issue, regarding dominant language/minority language policy.

Consider what happens to the Limbu teenager who is far better able to express her ideas about culture in her own language, the Tharu old man who needs to defend himself against his Khas speaking adversaries in court, the Magar woman whose marketing skill as a medical representative depends heavily on the proficiency of a language she is at a disadvantage.”
http://neltachoutari.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/lets-leave-english-as-english/#comment-3599

But, may be they are smarter than what we presume of them. It is highly possible that they can adapt. They will adapt. If Sugata Mitra’s children can learn computers on their own, these Limbu, Tharu and Magar people can also persevere, learn and adapt to the new and challenging situations they face. If they remain adamant and revolt for status-quo (a nice oxymoron), they will be the ones getting a raw deal. Another perspective – for the Limbu girl, expressing ideas about her culture in Limbu language may not be a matter of concern when she is trying to make her ends meet. Her culture may not be a big of a deal for her while she is trying to earn livelihood in this competitive modern world.

Adaptation is the key. You adapt or you get left behind. It doesn’t have to about the language at all.

Culture is a continuum. Language is a process. The Nepali language Prithivi Narayan Shah spoke while conquering rival states and while uniting Nepal is not the same Nepali we speak today. It has evolved considerably. In between then and now, hundreds of other languages and dialects have become extinct. Unification of Nepal and enforcing of Nepali as the official language might have been a reason but, we have to consider that there were waves of other determiners which were impossible to hold back. Industrialization, for instance.

The concern for preserving local languages is the ‘hottest’ issue in Nepal these days. There are hundreds of NGOs and INGOs advocating for the official recognition of several ethnic languages. In the midst of this ethnic-language consciousness, many experts and linguists have prescribed multilingual policy in education for Nepal as well, but the big question is – how practical and feasible it is?

Let us develop all the indigenous languages together. They should also be the medium of instruction, communication and all the official affairs.
http://neltachoutari.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/lets-leave-english-as-english/#comment-3607

That’s a great idea, but sadly, only an idea. Because in reality, as Romaine (2006) states, no country gives official status to every single language spoken within its territory. Where language policies exist, they inevitably privilege a limited set of languages.

All languages are equal but some languages are more equal than others, pun intended but that’s so obvious, isn’t it?

It would have been such an easy task had there not been any strong (and selfish) political undercurrent shaping all these discussions!

References:

Bista, R. (2013). Let’s Leave English as English. Retrieved from http://neltachoutari.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/lets-leave-english-as-english/

Romaine, S. (2006). Language Policy in Multilingual Educational Contexts. Concise Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics.

And, a reference to Orwell’s “Animal Farm”

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4 thoughts on “67. Can preserving a local language preserve a local culture

  1. Umes, Very interesting post. I like and also agree with most of what you say. We should value this kind of pragmatic perspectives in our discourse about ELT, language policy, education, etc. But let me respond to what I find it harder to agree.
    You say: “Language alone is not the factor for cultural loss.” That is absolutely right, and I don’t know who would disagree with this statement. There are, as you say, a plethora of factors–some worth resisting/rejecting, others worth embracing, and many others in between–that result in “cultural loss.” Also, I agree with you that cultures change/evolve and often “lose” themselves–which again can be anywhere between saddening and delightful (or as I say what-the-hell-you-gonna-do-about-it). That is, I am not sure who said only language loss leads to loss of culture.
    Second, when you quoted my comment on Nelta Choutari about the Limbu teenager, Tharu old man, and Magar woman, you say: “…may be they are smarter than what we presume of them…. They will adapt. If Sugata Mitra’s children can learn computers on their own, these Limbu, Tharu and Magar people can also persevere, learn and adapt to the new and challenging situations they face.” I agree with you that they are as smart as anybody, but BEFORE they are capable of using Khas Nepali efficiently, I don’t think that a society should leave them to their own means while we know that they are at a disadvantage; that is democratic states protect their civil rights, promote their languages/cultures, and ensure that while they catch up with the rest of the society a certain level of opportunity is ensured for them. Barack Obama went to Harvard in spite of being the son of a single mother, being a black kid, the offspring of a foreigner… because his society doesn’t leave people to their own means. I am currently working on a project with a professor of City University of New York who is advocating the idea that single-language American teachers and students need to learn from the multiple-language students how to navigate multiple languages and cultures. The underlying idea in the project is that the academia, and society at large, must invest their time and resources for raising the status of the Tharu, Magar, and Limbu equivalents of language users in this country–not leave them to their own means in the face of decreasing social interest in doing so. Social and academic policies can and should often push in the opposite direction of what naturally, normally happens in the society. Courts and legislatures, organizations and individuals, schools and teachers do crazy-looking things: they try out “ideas” and, yes, they often fail. I don’t understand why good ideas/ideals that people advocate have to be right or wrong. When I argue in favor of an ideal, I am not worried that it’s impractical, hoping that people will understand that I’m a different kind of participant in the conversation that our super-pragmatic and very impressive other participant, Umes Shrestha. But we all bring something to the table.
    Sorry, this is a long comment, but let me add one more response. You say: “If they remain adamant and revolt for status-quo (a nice oxymoron), they will be the ones getting a raw deal…. the Limbu girl… her culture may not be a big of a deal for her while she is trying to earn livelihood in this competitive modern world.” My response: “Or it may be both.” I don’t think anyone is right or wrong. I think we are discussing different ideas, different perspectives, and it’s very possible that we’re all adding something valuable to the conversation. For me, your post certainly added something I tend to think about less often–the importance of keeping the pragmatic perspective in mind. Thanks for sharing the thoughts.

    • Great. Thanks for the post. Like you said, I am just putting my perspectives on the table. I’m not making any arguments nor am I trying to ensue a pragmatist vs idealist battle. And, I’m certainly not ‘insulting’ anyone :). Hopefully.

      “The underlying idea in the project is that the academia, and society at large, must invest their time and resources for raising the status of the Tharu, Magar, and Limbu equivalents of language users in this country–not leave them to their own means in the face of decreasing social interest in doing so.”

      This sounds interesting. Is it going to be in the schools/colleges? Is it going to be specifically about language? Is it going to be about a multilingual MoI? I’m just curious. I’m sure we’ll get to know about the outcomes of this project.

  2. At this stage, a group of scholars are excited by what seemed like a “chimera” only a few years ago in the US: promotion of multilingualism among monolingual mainstream. As the global dynamics of financial, political, and technological power sharing changes (e.g., India and technology, China and huge markets for new technology, Brazil and competitive industrialization, South Korea and the “soft power” of the new global popular culture), there is a corresponding change in the interest in multilingual proficiency in the US. A few years ago, we started reading that the richest and cleverest families started teaching their kids Chinese! Then, we began to see mainstream media bring to light a whole series of research that shows the benefits of being multilingual and/or multicultural, like this, this,this, and this— or simply the massive proliferation of blogging on the issue, like . Then, there is an incredible amount of scholarly activities–journals, national conferences, sudden rise of scholars/advocates of multilingualism and “translingualism” from other countries who began to influence local scholars and entire disciplines that deal with literacy and writing studies (you’ll be surprised if you read this article that includes one Nepali scholar, my former teacher, in this article; though the article is also written by a Nepali scholar, few people would dispute his argument in the entire field). So, at this time, this society, which seemed to try to eliminate language complexity among its younger generations of immigrants and minorities, as well as not encourage its majority to bother to learn another language, seems to have woken up to a new reality of the 21st century world. This trend can be precisely explained by what you said earlier: “people will adapt” and they will, especially when there are incentives. But some people, like teachers, often policy makers, philosophers–or the more “crazy” types in any society–also push in directions where there don’t seem to be no incentives at first. To relate this conversation to my own crazy ideas about multilingualism, language policy, and the absurdity of English MoI in Nepal, I am inspired by the crazy types–who push boundaries, argue in favor of the apparently impossible. But often, they are also the ones that tend to see the future a little earlier, the past a little better, or the present a little deeper. Will update you about the issue if it goes beyond the stage of conference paper, long emails… into even publications… if not projects.

    • I don’t wanna make any quick judgement, but it seems the Americans don’t wanna miss out on the opportunities that lay ahead. Audiolingualism after the WWII, multilingualism after 2000. They sort of keep on reinventing the theories. Hope to read about your crazy ideas soon.

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