Academics Should Address Language Colonialism

Pomona College’s graduation requirement aside, most Americans who learn foreign languages do so out of curiosity and interest, rather than necessity. As rightwing talk of an invasion of Spanish-speaking immigrants attests, language ties into concepts of community and perceived power relations. For this reason, I hope that Pomona will offer one or more courses exploring linguistic colonialism in the near future.

Linguistic colonialism occurs when an introduced language becomes the most common language spoken and the original language is threatened to go, or effectively goes, extinct. Logically, we choose to learn the languages that are spoken by the greatest number of people. It’s a question of utility: Which language will reward you the most for investing time and effort into it? Most often, those with many speakers.

English is an excellent example. Its spread continues to this day. When I lived in South Korea on a scholarship last summer, my Korean teacher told us that Korean parents want to curtail mandatory English classes. Their children spend so much time learning English that they continue to make errors in basic Korean into high school. Speaking English is a sign of prestige.

Linguistic colonialism can happen with or without the government mandating that everyone take classes in a foreign language, although the educational system often plays a role in language identity. Not surprisingly, many of the languages we offer at the 5Cs became widely spoken because they replaced native languages, often under government tutelage. Mandarin Chinese gets promoted at the expense of Cantonese, Uyghur, and Tibetan; Spanish at the expense of Nahuatl and Quechua; French in lieu of Occitan and Breton; and Japanese over Ainu.

Students who study each language deserve the opportunity to examine how the language spread into other communities and subsumed native languages to varying degrees. I conceptualize a language colonialism course, which would focus on words that originate in subordinated languages and attitudes toward the subordinate language. How do subordinate language speakers think about using their native language? How do native speakers of the introduced language feel? Whether in Oldenborg conversation classes or traditional full-credit courses, students could benefit greatly from the opportunity to critically examine the history of the languages they choose to educate themselves in.

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