A Post-Liberal Approach to Language Policy in Education

A Post-Liberal Approach to Language Policy in Education

by John E. Petrovic


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A Post-Liberal Approach to Language Policy in Education by John E. Petrovic

This provocative defense of language diversity works through the strengths and weaknesses of liberal political theory to inform language policy. The book presents the argument that policy must occupy the space between 'linguistics of community' and 'linguistics of contact' in a way that balances individual autonomy and group recognition while not reifying 'language'. Drawing on the importance of the language/identity link, the author distinguishes between language negative liberalism and language positive liberalism, arguing against the former. This distinction orients consideration of increasingly specific language policy issues, such as official languages, language rights, bilingual education, and uses of language varieties within classrooms.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783092840
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 12/15/2014
Series: New Perspectives on Language and Education Series , #41
Pages: 136
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

John E. Petrovic is a Professor of Educational Leadership and Foundations of Education at The University of Alabama, USA. His research interests include the philosophy of education, education policy, language policy, and issues of diversity in education. He is the series editor of Studies in the Philosophy of Education, by Information Age Publishing.

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A Post-Liberal Approach to Language Policy in Education

By John E. Petrovic

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2015 John E. Petrovic
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78309-286-4


Language Policy, Identity, and Liberalism: Some Foundational Connections

Introduction: Language Planning

Language policy is a body of ideas, laws, regulations, rules and practices 'intended to achieve a planned change (or to stop change from happening) in the language use in one or more communities' (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997: 3). These policies might be enacted through legislation, court decisions, executive action or other means. In most instances, language policies are the result of language planning. In the language planning process, officials determine the linguistic needs, wants and desires of a community and then seek to establish policies that will fulfill those goals. Such goals might include: cultivating the language skills needed to meet national priorities; establishing the rights of individuals or groups to learn, use and maintain languages; promoting the growth of a national lingua franca; and promoting or discouraging multilingualism.

In some cases, language policy occurs without much planning. For example, language policy in the United States has developed without a consistent language ideology and with very little planning per se. Instead, it has evolved on an ad hoc basis through a number of important court cases and some legislation. This has meant that instead of following a smooth path toward some goal, it has historically been a path laid out in fits, starts and adhocracy shaped by various political, social and economic forces. As regards language diversity, this inconsistency is seen in a history that moves through three distinct periods: a period of benign neglect in which language diversity was tolerated, to a period of severe restriction with an emphasis on assimilation, to a period of opportunism that saw a revived importance placed on language learning and maintenance (Ovando, 2003).

When exercised, language planning can seek to achieve a variety of goals, including maintaining the status quo, transforming the language characteristics of a community of speakers, or reforming the language characteristics of a community of speakers (Weinstein, 1990). Language officialization, for example, where the language of the dominant group is made official, would be a policy maintaining the status quo and the linguistic privileges entailed. But language officialization need not always be a way to maintain the status quo. Officialization of various African languages in post-Apartheid South Africa is, instead, an example of reform, as was the officialization of Catalán in Spain/Cataluña.

Historically, language planning to transform – change identities, replace one elite group by another in the state apparatus or alter patterns of access to reflect the replacement of a dominant class or ethnic group (Weinstein, 1990) – is most readily seen in policies designed to make languages disappear. Historical examples include France's policies toward Alsace, Spain's policies toward Cataluña, and the United States' policies toward Native Americans. In educational policy, this kind of 'negative language planning' (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997) has often meant severe repression of the minority language in schools, including punishment for its use.

Finally, 'reform', in contrast to negative language planning that decreases the number of linguistic options, is 'positive language planning' (Petrovic & Kuntz, 2013): policies that increase linguistic options in terms, for example, of which languages can be used in what circumstances. In the United States, examples of this kind of policy would be the Voting Rights Act of 1975 and the Bilingual Education Act of 1968. The Voting Rights Act, as amended in 1975, requires states and political subdivisions to conduct elections and provide certain election materials in languages other than English. This Act is invoked whenever more than 5% of the voting-age citizens in the state or political subdivision are members of a single language minority group. The Bilingual Education Act was signed into law in 1968 as a way to address the harm done by English-only policies through 'new and imaginative programs' which funded bilingual education, mainly transitional bilingual education (Crawford, 2004).

Depending on the goal(s) set, there are three different kinds of planning that must be considered: corpus planning, status planning and acquisition planning. The latter two are the broad foci of this book.

Corpus, Status, and Acquisition Planning

Corpus planning deals with 'those aspects of language planning which are primarily linguistic and hence internal to language' (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997: 38). One of the primary tasks in corpus planning is standardizing the language, especially in terms of its grammar, writing system and vocabulary. In France and Spain, the Délégation Générale à la Langue Française et Aux Langues de France (formerly the Commissariat de la Langue Française) and the Real Academia Española, respectively, take on the task of standardizing the French and Spanish languages and endeavor to eliminate or minimize the infiltration of foreign words and expressions.

Another example of corpus planning would be the modernization of languages. Corpus planning also includes efforts to reform languages. Many Native American languages, for example, are being revitalized. This revitalization requires, among other things, modernization of the vocabulary. Indigenous translations for words such as 'airplane', 'computer', or 'hard drive' must all be determined. This example demonstrates how status planning and corpus planning become intertwined. The Northern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute all speak varieties of the Ute language. Whose variety should the standardization and modernization of the language reflect?

Status planning deals with 'those aspects of language planning which reflect primarily social issues and concerns and hence are external to the language(s) being planned' (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997: 30). The determination of which language(s) should be used for official purposes is a focus of status planning, for example. In the United States, federal legislative efforts to make English the official language exemplify status planning with the goal of maintaining the status quo. Even though the officialization of English would be a change to its current official status, it would serve to maintain the status quo since English is already the de facto lingua franca and language of power in the United States. As just noted, an example of status planning to reform in the United States was the Voting Rights Act.

India provides other clear, but complicated, examples of status planning (see Petrovic & Majumdar, 2010). In order to provide cohesion and communication at various levels (e.g. federal, state, local) a three-language formula was constitutionally introduced in the education system of India. This formula requires children: (1) to study and to receive content area instruction for 12 years in their mother tongue or the regional (state) language (which for some children will be one and the same), (2) to study Hindi or English for 10–12 years, and (3) to study a modern Indian language (i.e. any one of the scheduled languages) or a foreign language for 3–5 years. While implementation of this formula varies widely across states, it demonstrates the deliberative nature, at the federal level, of language planning to allocate status to particular languages, to encourage acquisition of a lingua franca and to promote multilingualism. It is also illustrative of the close and necessary relationship between status planning and acquisition planning.

Acquisition planning refers to the means by which members of the polity will be encouraged, induced or provided the opportunities by which to learn the language(s) that are the objects of language planning. Cooper (1989) presents three overt goals of acquisition planning: acquisition of a language as a second or foreign language, reacquisition of a language by populations for whom it was once a vernacular or language of specialized function, and language maintenance. While acquisition planning certainly does not boil down simply to planning language instruction, with respect to the means of reaching acquisition goals, schools and language instruction are naturally seen as crucial to the process. Thus, education policy vis-à-vis language planning becomes a highly volatile issue, especially around determinations of the media of instruction.

In other words, language policy (or lack thereof, as in the United States) has direct ramifications for acquisition planning and, therefore, education. If we are to be a monolingual society, what is the best way to educate children? If we respect families' rights to their own language and culture, need we supply the resources to promote them? If we want to respect private bilingualism but promote societal monolingualism, how should we educate language minority children? These questions foreshadow some of the topics that must be discussed when determining key language policy issues in education. Prior to a brief overview of those issues, I believe a somewhat longer discussion of the importance of language is required. At first blush, to state that language is important seems commonsensical. The real issue is how and why it is important. For it is not just language writ large that is important but the specific languages of our linguistically diverse world and communities. Specifically, then, I want to focus on the importance of language to identity, with the ultimate purpose of discussing (over the trajectory of this book) how liberalism must inform language policy.

Language, Identity, and Liberalism

A key discussion in language policy, especially as regards the extent to which liberal democratic societies must formally recognize languages other than the dominant language, concerns the link between language and identity. On the one hand, if language shapes who we are and, more thoroughly, who we can be, then it must be considered a crucial element in any conception of autonomy, a stalwart principle of liberalism. On the other hand, language is necessarily a group-level phenomenon. That is to say, even as individuals have language, its meaning and its enactment are necessarily engaged in association with others. Thus, it requires group rights, seemingly contrary to the liberal ethos of individualism. Later, I will argue that this argument is a bit of a red herring, even as it directs policy-making from some liberal lenses, what I refer to subsequently as formalist liberalism.

What I determine to focus upon in this chapter is deeper consideration of the first problem: whether language can or should be seen as a constitutive marker of identity and, if so, to what extent. In the end, I think this is the wrong question vis-à-vis liberalism. Nevertheless, it takes up many important pages in language policy debates and requires some review up front since it is this connection that, in large part, undergirds the relevance of liberal political theory to questions of language policy. Generally, the link between language and identity (mainly ethnic identity) is theorized in one of two ways (more or less strongly): there is the 'thin' camp, whose members theorize language as a 'surface feature' of identity; and there is a 'thick' camp, whose members theorize language as a primordial feature of identity. For the former, language loss may be unfortunate and even unnecessary, but not harmful since language is not essential to identity or culture. For the latter, language loss is typically harmful to individual identity and/or cultural groups since language loss alters identity and culture.

The Language–Identity Link: Thin and Thick

John Edwards defines ethnicity as a 'sense of group identity deriving from real or perceived common bonds such as language, race or religion' (Edwards, 1992: 130). While any one of these 'objective markers', as Edwards calls them, may be strong enough to give one a sense of ethnic identity, '[n]o single objective marker is necessary for the continuation of identity' (Edwards, 1988: 203). Among such non-essential markers we should include language. In this view, language policy researchers are cautioned not to essentialize identity, especially the language–identity link (Eastman, 1984; May, 2008, 2012).

Indeed, May rejects 'unequivocally any conception of language as a "primordial" feature of identity, along with any related essentialist notions of the language–identity link' (May, 2003: 140). For language is a contingent factor in identity. Since language is, as noted, a group phenomenon, to suggest that it is more than a contingent factor 'is to reinforce an essentialist conception of groupness' (May, 2003: 140). Therefore, May concludes, 'Language clearly does not define us, and may not be a necessary feature, or even an important one, in the construction of our identities, whether at the individual or the collective level' (May, 2003: 141). So, while language, for May, can be a constitutive factor of identity, even a significant factor, it is not a necessary or essential factor; it is but 'one cultural marker among many' (May, 2008: 8). Even though language can be significant to identity in many cases, in the end, ethnic identity does not necessarily change just because people or groups of people experience language shift or loss.

Again, the thin conception asserts that language is merely a surface marker of identity. Its loss does not affect the core belief of who one is. As Eastman notes,

A transformed language aspect of one's ethnic identity is still an aspect of that identity (and the transformation is from use to association – a change not a substitution) much as are ethnic dress and cuisine, no longer features of daily life but brought out for 'special' expressions of group identity. (Eastman, 1984: 264)

Eastman tries to establish ethnic identity as a two-level structure where one level is based on belief and the other on behavior. Eastman argues that actual language use in a cultural context may be one of the aspects of the behavioral level of ethnic identity, but the belief level is not necessarily dependent upon specific behaviors. In this view, a person is still French, for example, as long as she believes herself to be French, even after she no longer speaks French.

Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, for one, takes issue with this position. She argues that the thin position legitimates 'a reversal of what [she] ha[s] experienced as the most common occurrence (language is important), so that this becomes more or less an exception' (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2003, np). On the one hand, I think Skutnabb-Kangas is right to reject the view that language is not essential to identity. 'If linguistic minority children want to be able to speak to their parents and grandparents, know about their history and culture, and know who they are, they have to know their mother tongue, for identity reasons' (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000: 500). In this vein, it can certainly be said that Richard Rodriguez (1982), for example – who provides a moving account of his 'hunger of memory', that is, his alienation from his family due to language loss – is not the same person he might have been. On the other hand, I do not think that those who hold what I have called thin and thick conceptions of language are as far apart as Skutnabb-Kangas seems to paint it. May's (2008, 2012) use of Bourdieu's notion of habitus to inform the language–identity link, for example, does not strike me as too far afield from SkutnabbKangas' explanation:

Because of the primordial resources, reaching back into infancy and personal history, neither ethnicity nor mother tongue(s) can be treated as things, commodities, which you can choose at will and chuck out like an old coat if that is what you want. On the other hand, this does not mean that they are unchangeable givens or impossible to influence change, either. (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000: 137)

In the end, perhaps the difference here is that May thinks that language can be an important marker of identity – and, as Edwards (2010) points out, it certainly has powerful symbolic value – while Skutnabb-Kangas believes that language is an important marker of identity and this is not just 'accidental'. The latter is closer to my own position. For May's primary concern seems to be with the link between ethnic identity and language as opposed to identity period. I shall argue that language is not only a part of culture/ethnicity that shapes ethnic identity but also a unique epistemic code that can shape how we know. Thus, I consider three lines of argument in favor of a thicker conception of the importance of language(s). They are interrelated to such an extent that a perfect separation of them is impossible. But nonetheless I deal with them under the following separate broad subheadings: language as an essential cultural marker; language loss and children; and the epistemic nature of language.


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Table of Contents

1. Language Policy, Identity, and Liberalism: Some Foundational Connections2. Formalist Liberalism and Language Policy3. Saving Liberalism: Communities, Language, and Schooling4. The Promise and Problem in Linguistic Human Rights5. Post Linguistic Human Rights? 6. Post-Liberal Language in Education Policy7. A Post-Liberal Approach: Broadening Language and Narrowing Policy

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