No English Here

English-only education threatens the teaching power of local languages


| August 2, 2007


As far away as Africa and Europe, and as close to home as Native American reservations in the United States, native tongues are lashing out against the English language's global domination of education and culture.

In Germany, the clamor is coming from the Ivory Towers. German researchers often choose to publish or present their work in English because of its broader influence and perceived seriousness, argues biophysicist Stefan Klein in an essay for the German daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (available in translation from SignandSight.com). Yet the dominance of English in the sciences and education has not led to better or more informed work by non-native speakers. Klein points to findings in Sweden and Holland, where students are introduced to English when they first enter school. Despite the students' long-term exposure to the language, studies show that they score roughly 10 percent worse on exams when the classes are given in English than on exams in classes in their native languages.

The pervasiveness of English, however, may be most damaging to the cultural and linguistic systems of the margins. For Native Americans like the Sauk in Oklahoma, a century or more of compulsory English education has left their language on the verge of extinction. And, according to the Indigenous Language Institute, 89 percent of North American languages face a similarly grim fate. In the Summer issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly, which focuses on dying native languages, Jacob Manatowa-Bailey, the director of the Sauk Language Department for the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, warns that if native languages don't make a resurgence, then 'entire systems of thought, belief, and practice become permanently removed from the storehouse of human knowledge.'

In Africa, Cameroonian scholar Prince Kum'a Ndumbe III paints a more disturbing picture of language colonization. In a manifesto for the pan-African online weekly Pambazuka News, Ndumbe likens the foreign education systems implanted across the continent to organs of 'intellectual genocide.' Echoing Manatowa-Bailey, Ndumbe argues that for any change to take place, 'Africans must re-appropriate their own languages and use them as basic vehicles for their thinking, production, education, dreams and outlook on the world.'

English is often touted as a means of uniting people across cultures and allowing them to effectively communicate. But, like other lingua francas before it, English has become a pariah, instead of a savior, for the way its use in education excludes and homogenizes. English-based education, Klein writes, is doing more than threatening language diversity, it's pushing the world toward a global divide. 'On one side will be those who employ an elite language,' he predicts, 'and on the other, all those who miss out on the latest developments.'

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