Current - Second Language


Themes, issues, keywords:

Mother Tongue Movements (like Bangladesh)
International Mother-Tongue Day - February 21
Kurdish Community Groups
English as a Second Language
Power and Language
Multi-lingual signs
Multi-cultural signs
Borders of Language
Learning a Language
Alphabet Charts
Shaheed Minar

Prepartory Reading:
1. On Not Speaking Chinese - Ien Ang
2. Mountain Language - Harold Pinter
3. Decolonializing the Mind
4. Language Death - David Crystal

1. Mind your language


Surely you find deep connections between the issues addressed in Chicano/Chicana literature, and literature produced as a result of our struggles during the Language Movement?

There are connections, of course. Our language movement in 1952 acutely underlined what might be called the right-to-language—the message that the people of the world should have the right to use their own language.

So we Bengalis had to fight for our right to use our mother tongue in the face of the official imposition of Urdu as a state language, and thus we had to confront, challenge, and combat a particular version, a relatively local brand, of linguistic imperialism, one that surely had to do with what we’ve come to call ‘national oppression.’ In the US the Mexican Americans had to fight—oh yes, for a long time—against linguistic imperialism. And they’re still fighting against linguistic imperialism as such, exemplified as it is in the imposition of English by white Americans. Think of today’s blatantly racist and imperialist ‘English Only’ movement in the US. In fact, part of what has come to be known as Chicano/Chicana literature—a political name for Mexican American literature produced in the US from the 1960s onward—has seriously taken up the language question, while also articulating a range of politically engaged positions against linguistic imperialism itself. Indeed, one of the major themes in Chicana/Chicano literature is this struggle against linguistic imperialism.

This becomes evident in—among other things—the use of a hybrid between English and Spanish, known as ‘Spanglish,’ in Chicano/a literature. For Chicano/a writers, then, the deployment of Spanglish itself turns out to be an explicitly political act, one that remains opposed to the hegemony of the so-called standard English language. Oh yes, Chicano/a writers seem to be saying like the South African poet Alexis Nyundai: ‘Stick your good English up your ass!’ So see the message here?

And I’m reminded of a major Chicana writer and activist—Gloria Anzaldua. In fact, the other day when I addressed a seminar on Mexican American literature at North South University, I focused particularly on Gloria Anzaldua. Now Gloria Anzaldua’s concern with language is quite evident in her entire range of works, particularly in her politically charged and hybrid or mixed-genre work in English and Spanglish called Borderlands. Anzaldua asserts in Borderlands thus: ‘Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self. Until I take pride in my language I cannot take pride in myself.’ In other words, language is her identity. When language is taken away, identity is also taken away.

It is this dialectical interplay between language and identity—one that my favourite theorist-activist Frantz Fanon has so wonderfully theorized in his Black Skin, White Mask—that has variously engaged a whole host of writers from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, in the face of different forms and forces of violence that colonialism had already perpetrated on many indigenous languages in the world. Think of how numerous Native American and other ‘aboriginal’ languages and dialects were simply destroyed by colonialism—Spanish or English or French. The fact that we use English in Asia or Africa today—or that others use Spanish and French, for instance, in Latin America and Africa—has to do with, among other things, a history of colonial violence.

And, indeed, we faced nothing short of violent colonial attacks on our own mother tongue—Bangla—for a long time. Our Language Movement of 1952 was a historically and politically significant response—people’s response (check out Badruddin Umar’s seminal work on our Language Movement)—to some of those attacks I mentioned. Also, it will be no exaggeration to maintain that Bangla has long remained the language of the ‘subaltern,’ the language of the ‘lesser mortals,’ if you will. It is not at all difficult to see how Bangla still remains by and large ignored—and think of the prestige or classist prerogrative of English, for that matter—the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate nation-state notwithstanding. In other words, our anti-colonial, anti-imperial struggles can by no means evade the crucial political question of language, the question of Bangla in this instance.



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