Language, Law, Notable

Amptoons is right, Pedantry’s series of posts about language policy is one of the most interesting things in the blogsphere right now. (Right up there with Ornicus’ series of posts on Fascism, and Nathan Newman’s discussion of the minimum wage.) But Pedantry’s posts are rather long winded for a blog (he calls it long format blogging”). I printed out five related posts and it came to 29 pages (in single space Times Roman 12 point)!!! But because this is an issue very close to my heart and because there is a tremendous amount of good stuff in there, I did read it all and so I thought I’d try to summarize some of the key points, along with some of my own commentary. For those who want to read the original, here is Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, A post on French Immersion schools in Canada, and a related post on the Israel-Palestine conflict. There is still a Part 4 on its way …. [Update. Part 4 is up!]

Rather than a step-by-step summary of Scott’s three posts, I want to treat them thematically. In any case Part 1 is already a summary of a book on Language Policy, and so a summary of that wouldn’t do much good.

First off, in his dialog with the book, Scott addresses two common myths about language education. (For links to more such myth-smashing, see my post on Bilingualism.)

Myth #1: Language is a Zero-Sum Game.

This is the belief that seems to drive most hard-core opponents of linguistic diversity.

They tend to be anglophones nowadays and far too many seem to regard the existence of multiple languages as the curse of Babel.”

Underlying their position is the belief that multilingualism not only causes problems for society as a whole (the curse of Babel), but also negatively impacts individuals. Scott shows in several places throughout the discussion that learning more than one language does not do any harm. In his discussion of Stephen May’s chapter in the Language Policy book he says:

He points to the either/or nature of many language claims as representative of this problem. I, too, noticed how the authors of many of the chapters in this book seem to think that bilingualism is simply impossible, or assume that any bilingualism is simply a step towards assimilation into the dominant language and culture. There is no inherent reason why this should be true. Although May does not make this case, in the era before the modern nation state, whole multilingual communities persisted for generations, and in many place they were the norm, not the exception. Even today, large parts of the Balkans have communities where universal or near-universal bilingualism is the norm, and in the most Anglophilic nations of Europe — the Low Countries and Scandinavia — near universal bilingualism has become a stable situation.

Chris also addresses this notion of learning a language as a cost” in the context of Jacob Levy’s chapter on literacy:

This claim is true for a set of languages. Chinese, Japanese, English and French are the prototype examples of languages where even native speakers have a great deal of difficulty acquiring literacy and second language speakers are still more disadvantaged. Otherwise, this claim is simply false for the overwhelming majority of the world’s languages, particularly its smaller and more threatened ones.

I am less convinced of this. I think Chris overlooks the complexity of the issue. One of the most important questions is whether people are first acquiring literacy in their mother tongue, or in the dominant language. I’m not sure that children acquiring primary literacy in their mother tongue have any more difficulty with one language as opposed to another. But if they acquire their second literacy in a different script this can create problems. For Taiwanese Aborigines who learn Chinese first, the roman characters of the missionary phonetic system are quite difficult. This would be less true for those who first acquired literacy in English (and is one of the reasons Taiwan is now planning on switching to a Latin phonetic alphabet for teaching Chinese as well).

Myth #2: Language death is natural”.

This is one of the issues which Scott does the best job on. It comes up the first time in his discussion of Michael Blake’s chapter in the Language Policy book:

Unfortunately, the whole of Blake’s argument is built on this base. He demands that before a linguistic right can be established, we must show that the second situation has occurred due to a historical injustice rather than happenstance. He believes that progressive assimilation can occur in an entirely just, voluntary manner. But this process describes no real situation. In every case that might in some way resemble Blake’s description, we have a community which has been compelled, by more or less coercive means, to become bilingual in some more dominant language. Without extensive bilingualism in the minority community and unequal access to power, there is never assimilation, and even in cases where there is widespread bilingualism, social inequality and extensive borrowing, there is not always linguistic assimilation.

Blake’s core argument – that language death is not always the consequence of coercion so we must look to historical factors in assigning language rights – collapses entirely on this matter of historical record.

I’m not an expert on creole studies, which underlies part of Scott’s argument, but I like what he has to say about social inequality and bilingualism.

Language Rights

The next big theme that runs throughout the posts is that of language rights.” Scott finds arguments based on the intrinsic value in linguistic diversity” to be weak, and he offers us some thoughts on how to place language rights on more secure ground.

He captures the problem best when he discusses Idil Boran’s chapter in the book:

She also identifies an individual’s freedom of choice as grounds for supporting language diversity. However, this is difficult to accept at face value. An individual’s freedom to live in a particular language is conditioned on access to a substantial community of speakers. This can not be guaranteed in the same manner as an individual freedom to hold particular political views or religious beliefs. The essentially collective nature of language rights makes this entire line of thinking problematic.

Scott then proceeds in Part 3 to essentially recreate Boran’s argument — but only after he has redefined all of her terms so as to (hopefully) avoid making the same mistake. The first move is to call into question the common-sense notion of the individual”:

I am not claiming that anything except individual people are making decisions and taking actions, just that we can attribute outcomes to the whole that we can not necessarily attribute to individuals alone. All I am saying is that [m]en make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances…” The circumstances in which people act are not static and sometimes we do act as a part of something else. To attribute only to individuals the causes of their actions is utterly contrary to the way we usually conceptualise the world and the way we behave towards each other.

The second move is to re-conceptualize the notion of collective.” This is something he had done earlier in a discussion of the Israel-Palestinian conflict:

Any bunch of things can be a collection. Collections may not have clear definitions. They may be fuzzy or ambiguous. They need not be Aristotelian sets. The Americans are a collection. The Israelis are a collection. The Jews are a collection. I need not be able to identify precisely who is an American, an Israeli or a Jew to identify those things as collections. I just need to assert that there is more than one person or thing that is American, Israeli or Jewish.

Collections are not entities capable of cognition or coherent action. They do not plan, consider possibilities, have needs or goals, or take responsibility for things. There are, however, groups that can have needs and goals, that can plan, undertake cognition and take purposeful actions. They are called collectives.

Firms, armies, states, governments, unions, churches, clubs and many other kinds of groups are collectives. They can be identified as collectives because they can be recognised as having needs, goals, and intentions, a capacity for cognition, and the ability to undertake coherent, meaningful action. Collectives can, therefore, be responsible for the actions they undertake. Collections can not.

The third move is to re-conceptualize the notion of freedom of choice.” He does this by arguing instead for freedom to maximize our self-development”:

I want to advance self-development as the core idea of a sort of humanism. I assert that people have the right to develop themselves as they wish and that enhancing people’s ability to do so should be identified as the good thing on which utilitarian discussions of policy should focus. That means that people should be able to become what they want to be; that their thoughts, desires and choices should be able to evolve in as unrestricted a manner as possible. This idea subsumes the notion of opportunities” in liberal discourse but it is larger than that.

Just to recap, here is Scott’s own summary:

Individual identity is not a property of bodies. It is a property of a set of relations between people and things which are centred on the body. We can identify the structures that we live in as parts of ourselves.

A collective is any assemblage of things, physical, symbolic or otherwise, which we can identify with a single centre of cognition and action. That definition includes people, according to the first principle. We can, to some degree treat collectives the same way we treat people, even though not all collectives are people. We can assert responsibility and lay blame on collectives. Assemblages that can not be identified with a centre of cognition and action can not be identified as collectives and can not be treated at all like people.

The right to free self-development is the standard for establishing, defending, justifying and limiting all other rights and freedoms. It is the final tool by which policies are to be judged. It is also a context-sensitive right which may mean very different kinds of policies and priorities in different times and places.

Scott then applies these principles to the issue of Affirmative Action as well as reparations for slavery. Unfortunately, Part 4 where he applies these principles to language policy, is not yet up at the time that I write this, but I think there is already quite enough to see how Scott thinks about these issues. I’ll have to think them over some more before responding at length, but here are some quick thoughts and links to comments elsewhere on the web:

First of all, I agree with Amptoons who says:

I have disagreements with almost every detail of Scott’s discussion of black-white inequality in the USA. (For example, Scott puts too much weight on the economic value of skills, while seemingly ignoring the essential importance of inter-generational wealth transfers — a formulation of the problem that is, I’m sure unintentionally, more flattering to white people than we deserve.)

I look forward to a more full-fledged discussion from Amptoons.

I also like what Debitage has to say about Scott’s theory of universal bilingual education.

Personally, I think that Scott seems to want to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to show that it is in the majority’s interest to have diversity, thus making an essentially instrumental argument; but he also wants to make a normative argument about what kind of world we ought to live in. But what if it turns out that it is not in the majority’s interest to live in such a world? Does that invalidate the moral claims he wishes to make? I would hope not.

Economic Origins of Bilingualism

In his effort to show that multilingualism can be justified on the grounds that it results in more productive use of labour,” Scott provides a wonderful account of the economic causes of bilingualism in both Quebec and Belgium! In fact, this last bit is so good, that I’ll just go ahead and quote it here:

I think Canadian and Belgian histories support the validity of my case, although the order of events is somewhat reversed. Before WWII, French Canadians were, in the words of one Québecois activist, les nègres blancs d’Amérique — the white negros of the Americas. They suffered from all the same patterns of poverty and discrimination that have to some degree characterised Spanish-speaking Americans and at one time the Flemish. During the war, the British needed labour to build weapons, and since conscription did not apply to Québec, the province had a large available labour pool far out of range of German bombers. Hundreds of thousands of young French Canadians were enticed off their farms and into the cities, primarily to Montreal, to work in the factories. The needs of war meant that if factories had to operate in French to get things done, they operated in French. It is this economic shift, and its continuation in the post-war period, that led to the Quiet Revolution and the rise of francophone activism and Québec nationalism.

Belgian history is in some respects similar. In the late 19th century, Wallonia – the southern, French-speaking half of Belgium – was what Silicon Valley was in the 1990’s: a global high-tech centre, where standards of wealth were higher than virtually everywhere else. Belgium was a major global player in the coal and steel industry – an industry as central to growth in the 19th century as electronics is today. After WWII, during the years of the German “economic miracle”, there was an enormous demand for labour in manufacturing, and Flanders was conveniently located near large German industrial centres. Germans had no particular preference for French over Dutch, so Flemish industries operated in the language of Flemish workers. At the same time, Wallonia’s engines of wealth were failing. The steel industry was moving to Japan, and coal didn’t fetch the price it used to. Wallonia became poor while Flanders grew rich. It is this economic shift which made Flemish nationalism and linguistic equality feasible.

If I write any more I might end up reproducing all 29 pages of Scott’s original post. I hope this summary is useful for people not used to long format blogging”! Please feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments!