"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." --Ludwig Wittgenstein
"The world is richer than it is possible to express in any one language." --Ilya Prigogine, Nobel Prize-winning scientist
"If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world." -- Ludwig Wittgenstein
Forty-one years ago, on June 16, 1972, 176 Zulu-speakers, including many children, were gunned down in Soweto, South Africa. They had assembled to peaceably protest the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in then-apartheid South Africa. They were being denied the right to learn in their home languages. This was just two years after the birth of Bangladesh and 24 years after several Bangladeshi intellectuals, including four university students, were killed (on February 21, 1952) while fighting for their right to speak, read, and write their language. In 1999, recognizing the sacrifices of these and other brave individuals who risked their lives while defending their language rights, the United Nations declared February 21 International Mother Language Day, a global celebration of language diversity.
All around the world, communities have been experiencing linguistic erosion in varying degrees, as English usage--and use of other ex-colonial languages, like French in francophone Africa, Spanish in the bulk of Latin America, and Portuguese in Angola, Brazil Mozambique, and East Timur--steadily surpass local language usage in institutions of power, including schools (Buque, 2013). Parents and other educators tend to believe that English and the other dominant European languages are more prestigious, and will take their children further educationally. Yet, use of the mother tongue (MT) is essential for interpersonal and educational success, particularly in the early years (see also Heugh, 2011; Pandey, 2013a).
In a 2012 study involving 24 schools in Cameroon--12 of which employed the local language, Kom, for the first three grades (before transitioning children to English) and 12 others that used just English-the children who started out using their MT, Kom, outperformed their peers in the English-only schools in all subject areas, including reading, math, and even English (see "Mother," 2013). In North America, specifically the United States and Canada, studies suggest similar benefits of early bilingualism (Carlson & Metzoff, 2008; Pandey, 2013a).
When you devalue home languages by, for instance, using just English with students who speak another language at home, you stifle learning and community engagement. Some language laws, like Arizona's English-only law and Russia's law banning instruction in minority languages like Bashkir and Tatar (effective September 1, 2013), silence students and jeopardize the success of entire communities. They prompt us to ask why linguistic progress--a prerequisite for educational success across the globe--has not kept pace with technological advancements.
In celebration of the 2013 International Mother Language Day, ACEI Executive Director, Diane Whitehead (DW), discussed this subject with the author (AP), in the interview below. The condensed version of their BAM Radio Network exchange is available at http://acei.org/news-publications/acei-radio.html. Drawing on current research, it is a tribute to the advocacy efforts and sacrifices of individuals all over the globe who celebrate the...