Language and politics: when is multilingualism a political act?

Hamas recently announced that it has reintroduced Hebrew language classes in universities in Gaza

Hamas recently announced that it has reintroduced Hebrew language classes in universities in Gaza

Recently it was announced that for the first time in 20 years, Hebrew classes have been reintroduced by Hamas to the university syllabus  in the Gaza strip. Hamas apparently intends to entirely reintroduce Hebrew teaching to secondary schools as well, despite great resistence from the local population. However, Hamas insists that it is important for the Palestinians to “know the language of their enemy”, and even go so far as to call this an act of resistance. This got me thinking – for many language learning is not a hobby or a choice, it is a necessity, and consequently it is done with great resentment and reluctance.

Language politics is nothing new, however. In fact, in a world that increasingly looks to English as a linguafranca, ’emerging’ countries seem to be using language as one of their first assertions of independence. The last twenty years has seen the breakdown of Serbo-Croat into several languages, divided primarily by new borders rather than linguistic character, the revival of ‘regional’ languages such as Welsh and Catalan and their rise to prominence at the front of independence campaigns in both respective countries, and South Africa’s adoption of 11 official languages after the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela, with calls being made for a similar move to be made in India. To an extent, language will always be a political thing – it has been said by some linguists that a language is no more than a dialect with its own army. It’s a very sore point for people, however, especially those who have lived through occupation. But to the dismay of language enthusiasts across the world, these people increasingly then choose to adopt English as a second language, mistakenly thinking that it can serve their communication purposes with neighbours, tourists and business partners more neutrally than other prominent regional languages.

Some make the case that English has risen to its current linguafranca-status on the back of its simple grammar, short words, and apparent global neutrality. What these arguments ignore, however, is that there are plenty of other languages that already fulfil these requirements (like Afrikaans, which has a far simpler grammar than English) and that English actually has one of the most illogical and complicated spelling systems of any language in the entire world. English’s global dominance is the legacy of centuries of British imperialism. The language was packaged off and forced upon millions of people worldwide, and still remains essential for official purposes in vast swathes of Africa, India, and other parts of the world where British flags once flew. Subsequently the economic and military rise of America came about at the same time as the British empire’s demise, and the mass export of American popular culture through film and media has kept English going well into the 20th and 21st centuries, perhaps now forever.

I travelled to Georgia and Armenia last year, where Russian is still the main second language

In March last year I travelled to Georgia and Armenia from Russia via Ukraine. Arguably this region can be seen as the epicentre of language politics and an example of the baffling state of affairs it can bring about. In the Cold War era, east European and ex-Soviet countries taught Russian as a second language in schools. Russian was the linguafranca across the whole region, and largely still is in the Caucuses. However recent pro-Western politics in Georgia has made it unpopular, and in Tbilisi I noticed that those who could speak English made a point of insisting on it, replying in it to everything that I was saying in Russian (although when it came to disputing the amount of money I was being charged for my hostel, I noticed that the receptionist’s English unexpectedly dried up and she asked politely if we could switch to Russian). Russian signage had been completely removed, replaced with signs exclusively in Georgian and a smattering of English, despite the fact that in neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan English is still relatively unspoken, and Russian is still the preferred second language of the vast majority. This created a fairly bizarre situation – it seemed to me like Russian was Georgia’s dirty secret. There was no trace of it anywhere, but when I needed anything like an underground ticket or a memory card and the only instructions I could see were in Georgian, suddenly people were desperate to speak Russian, and moreover spoke it flawlessly. “Молодой человек,” one man said to me in a shop when I asked if he spoke Russian, “вы встретили в Грузии одного человека, который не говорит по-русски? Здесь недавно была Россия!” (“Young man, have you met one person in Georgia who doesn’t speak Russian? Not long ago this was Russia!“) .

In Yerevan I met some travellers at the hostel who spoke no Russian at all and were finding it impossible to make themselves understood. They had asked me to write down some useful Russian phrases for them. But then they hesitated, and said that they didn’t want to offend local people by speaking Russian and would continue trying to speak to them in English instead. I must confess, I still do not see the logic of this.

attention dogs and dog guardians dr heckleIt’s sad that languages can come with so much baggage. As a language enthusiast, I’ve always thought that the ability to overcome political obstacles is one of the most liberating aspects of being multilingual. In the past, people have raised questions about my political beliefs because I’ve studied languages such as Hebrew and Afrikaans. However, every time my answer is the same: that there never have been any motivations of that kind behind my language choices, only a desire to communicate with other people. And that, after all, is what language learning should really be all about.