The role of government in language and what history shows us about the effects of government involvement in matters of language.
BitEdge holds a Masters of Applied Linguistics from the University of New England Australia and has years of experience in second language education.
This post will examine what role governments do, could and should play in areas of language. It will touch on some examples of government language policies in an attempt to glean lessons from history. We will also consider the broader, more fundamental questions of whether language policies are necessary and whether or not governments should be involved in language at all.
What right does a group of people have to dictate matters of language onto other people? Is language policy an example of politician’s megalomania and obsession for control and influence on people’s lives? Or is language policy a case of positive social engineering that can serve the greater good? Do such policies achieve their goals? What do recent historical examples teach us in these regards?
Examples of government language policies and outcomes
By and large the history of government’s involvement in language is a litany of top down, centralized, prejudice, disenfranchisement, incompetence and unintended consequences.
Turkish government and Kurdish language
A modern example of language policy is the Turkish government’s involvement in relation to the Kurdish language spoken in Turkey. This is an example of government taking a role in language and having a negative effect on linguistic diversity and their own citizen’s sense of identity.
Hassanpour, Sheyholislami, & Skutnabb-Kangas (2012) used the term “linguicide” to describe this policy which was to try to eradicate and suppress the Kurdish language in order to engineer a more homogeneous and unified Turkish society and nation state.
The methods to enact this policy included changing place names, re-locating groups of Kurdish speakers and banning the use of Kurdish in public institutions including schools. As detailed by Zeydanlıoğlu (2012, para 19)
Officials ordered Kurdish folk songs to be sung only in Turkish to avoid “separatism” and public speaking or printing in Kurdish was banned and thousands of newspapers, magazines and books on Kurds were confiscated and burnt. David McDowall points out that by 1986, 2,842 more Kurdish villages had been given Turkish names (McDowall 2000: 424). In fact, a study of this state policy has shown that between 1940 and 2000, the names of more than 12,000 villages, amounting to every third village in Turkey, were “turkified”, with a particular concentration in the Kurdish provinces and the Black Sea regions (Tuncel 2000). In the 1980s, the notorious Diyarbakir Military Prison, with a sign at its entrance hall ordering “Speak Turkish, speak it a lot” (Turkce konuc, cok konuc), became a concentration camp where thousands of Kurds were brutally tortured and “turkified”, with many killed or maimed.
This contributed to massive social displacement and disadvantage of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens as well as festering resentment toward the central government. This in turn caused civil disobedience and non-engagement to flourish in Kurdish areas up to the point of armed separatism.
So the result was a far more divided and dis-unified Turkish society and nation state. Exactly the opposite of what the government language policy was meant to achieve. As Zeydanlıoğlu (2012 para, 14) puts it
Ironically, such crude and oppressive assimilationist strategies and coercive practices often had the opposite effect of raising ethnic awareness among many Kurds, and the 1970s in particular saw a rise and radicalisation of Kurdish and leftist movements that challenged the official ideology. In this highly politically dynamic period, various new political, religious and extremist movements, organisations and publications emerged.
Linguistic nationalism contributed to the Sri Lankan civil war
We can also look to the example of the Sri Lankan government’s language policy which contributed to the Sri Lankan civil war that left 70,000 people dead, millions displaced and is still a gaping wound in the region.
A key catalyst for the conflict starting was the 1956 language act making Sinhala the counties only official language DeVotta (2004. pp xvii) summarizes
Numerous ethnocentric practices successive Sri Lankan governments pursued from the mid-1950s on led to a milieu in which the islands institutions failed to deal dispassionately with the Tamil minority and that the institutional decay that ensues helped mobilize disgruntled Tamil youth to seek a separate state. Nearly all those who have focused on Sri Lanka’s post-independence politics recognize that making the majority communities Sinhala language the country’s only official language in 1956 contributed to the Singhalese-Tamil rivalry. What many fail to recognize, however is the extent to which linguistic nationalism became the mechanism that precipitated institutional decay.
We could go on with more examples of government’s draconian, self-interested language policies with negative effects.
Singapore government: Talk talk English good lah!
There are also many cases where government language policies simply fall flat. Perhaps because in the absence of compulsion, or at least incentivisation, people will speak whatever dialect is to their best advantage. This will usually be the dialect they and their interlocutors are most comfortable with, not the one politicians in the capital want them to use.
One such case is the Singaporean government’s language policies that attempt to stamp out Chinese dialects and Singlish. The policy on Singlish as opposed to standard “correct” English has economic motivations in that the Singaporean government feel having a population of standard English speakers will be an economic advantage to the nation surrounded by non-English speaking neighbors (Wee, 2010).
The Singaporean government tried to deride and push down Singlish with a proactive campaign supporting standard English in its place named the “speak good English” movement.
They grossly underestimated the population’s love for their own unique dialect and how ingrained it was in Singaporean society. This can be seen from the grassroots “speak good Singlish” movement (Wee, 2014) that came in response to the government’s program.
The government then changed the name of their program to “Get it right” insinuating that Singlish is wrong.
Eyebrows are now raised when government politicians and departments continue to use Singlish themselves, going against their own instructions.
Singlish is one of the few uniquely Singaporean and unifying cultural artifacts that modern Singapore has. It is one of the only ways in which many Singaporeans are creative in their day to day lives. To try to stamp that down in the hopes of some more multinational contracts is a typical example of government grossly underestimating, undervaluing and mismanaging languages.
If anything it has increased the prominence of Singlish in the national psyche, again the opposite of the government policies intention (Rubdy 2001).
Hebrew in Israel: Government and population pull in the same direction
The Hebrew language in Israel is a rare example of a government language policy that has worked well. The government of Israel took new citizens from all over the world, mostly Europe, and made the national language one that almost none of them, or anyone else, could speak!
Hebrew was on the verge of extinction as a living language in the early 1900s, it was only used in religious literature, scholarly writing and ceremonies. With the Israeli governments proactive and thorough language policy it is now spoken by over 7 million people and as a first language by over 5 million of them (Sáenz-Badillos, 1996).
The reason this was a successful policy unlike the other examples above is that there was agreement between what the people wanted and what the government wanted. The people wanted was to speak Hebrew in Israel for personal, social, religious and historic reasons so they were happy to support the policy thus allowing the governments work to be effective.
New Zealand Maori languages rejuvenated from the ground up
The final example we will consider is the semi organic rejuvenation of Maori languages in New Zealand which were nearly extinct but were brought back to growth by organic community initiatives that were then bought into the education system and have now resulted in a nationwide Maori language policy (Spolsky, 2003).
This is a case of a bottom up language policy initiated by the grass roots community and then adopted by the government which could be considered the dog wagging the tail, as it should be, rather than the government dictating to the people.
Should governments have language policies?
Some examples of language policy are good, most are bad but none are necessary. Which brings us to the more fundamental questions of why do governments have language polices and should they have them at all?
If the above disasters, unintended consequences and ineptitude are an indication of the results of government language policy why should they have the right to set language policies at all? Do they have the right?
Where do governments get the idea that they can or should manage the language coming from free people’s mouths? The Constitution of Australia does not mention Language or anything related (Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia 1900) so why is the Australian government involved in language at all?
Seemingly reasonable reasons include the important practicalities of what language should be used in education and law and order.
The libertarian view point is that another part of government’s motivation to set language policies is megalomania and hubris. This view expounds that Governments think they should be involved in every aspects of everyone’s life and should control and manage everything (Rothbard, 2009).
Those in favour of government involvement in langue say the problems caused by our earlier examples are the result of bad language policies and what they advocate are good language policies based on modern knowledge and linguistic expertise that would be done for the right reasons having learnt the precautionary lessons of the past.
However we should consider that the same thing would have been said at the time of the government langue policies we now describe as bad. The Turkish government’s linguicide of Kurdish was, from their point of view at the time, good language policy based on modern knowledge and linguistic expertise that was done for the right reasons having learnt the precautionary lessons from the past.
It is hubris to think the damming reports we make looking back at previously language policies will not be repeated in the future about our current ones.
People calling for more government involvement in rejuvenating the last remaining Australian Aboriginal languages might take time to consider what the cause of the linguicide of 230 out of 250 Aboriginal languages spoken on contact (Walsh & Yallop, 1993, p. 1) was. The cause was government involvement in language (Crowley 1993).
So concerned Australians are calling for a solution from the same cohort of people that caused the problem, expecting these people will reverse the course that they themselves set when their motivations now are the same as they were then.
Where the libertarian and statist view agree is in the openly stated government justification for language policies that governments desire to engineer a coherent and unified society. Statist think this is a justifiable goal but according to the libertarian view what the government is really saying is that diversity is dangerous and the government can better manage, keep obedient and extract taxation from one homogeneous group than they could from a socially and linguistically diverse hodgepodge.
Linguistic diversity is messy, unordered and could lead to division; all things that are antithetical to politicians and the state.
Practical cases for governments to mandate language
Laws, courts and police
Even small government libertarians believe the government has a role to play in law and order. It seems logical that all laws be written in the same language and that court proceedings should occur in the same language for consistency and fairness. However that does not help a citizen who does not speak that language. In these cases police and the courts have the obligation to provide interpreting services to those individuals.
As such a reasonable language policy might be that all laws be written in and court proceedings conducted in the national language and anyone who does not speak it will be provided an interpreter when dealing with police or the courts.
The subject of what langue should be used in education is a difficult one where the local language is different from the national one. Research shows that in such cases the best education outcomes are achieved when the student receives education in both their local language and the nation’s official language or lingua franca (Lindholm-Leary 2001). It is posited that a child’s right to education includes for the child to be able to understand the teacher which means some instruction in the local language.
A policy setting could be that all students will receive education in their local language and in the national language to the level that they would be at no disadvantage entering a tertiary education course taught in the national language.
A regulatory laissez-fairist might say teachers should teach in whatever language makes most sense to them in their location. If the language a teacher teachers in is doing a disservice to their students they will not be employed as teachers for long and there is no reason to assume the government can come up with a good language policy or implement it competently anyway.
If governments don’t manage language, someone else will
One argument in favor of government language policies could be if the relevant area of government does not impose a language policy then someone else might. That is to say if the government does not have a well formed language policy engineered and implemented with the help of expert linguists then other forces will implement de facto or indirect language policies for their own purposes.
One such example could be the over prevalence of English in the South Korean education testing regime that Piller & Cho (2013) argue stems from the government’s neo-liberal economic policies that were pushed by economists rather than linguists.
we see that the outcome of government language policies run the gamut from successful to disastrous with failure and unintended consequences the most common themes. We see these policies are not usually implemented in the interest of the people or language but rather in the interest of the state itself.
Some simple language policies in areas such as education and law and order are justifiable but other than that society would be as well off or better off without government interference in language.
This article deals with the state and linguistics, for an article which deals with crypto and linguistics see our linguistic study of the bitcoin community.
Crowley, T. (1993). Tasmanian Aboriginal language: old and new identities.
DeVotta, N. (2004). Blowback: Linguistic nationalism, institutional decay, and ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Stanford University Press.
Hassanpour, A., Sheyholislami, J., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2012). Introduction. Kurdish: Linguicide, resistance and hope.
Lindholm-Leary, K. J. (2001). Dual language education (Vol. 28). Multilingual Matters.
Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, (1900). Constitution of Australia. Melbourne: Australian Federal Government.
Piller, I., & Cho, J. (2013). Neoliberalism as language policy. Language in Society, 42(1), 23- 44.
Rothbard, M. N. (2009). Anatomy of the State. Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Rubdy, R. (2001). Creative destruction: Singapore’s speak good English movement. World Englishes, 20(3), 341-355.
Sáenz-Badillos, A. (1996). A history of the Hebrew language. Cambridge University Press.
Spolsky, B. (2003). Reassessing maori regeneration. Language in Society, 32(4), 553-578.
Walsh, M., & Yallop, C. (Eds.). (1993). Language and culture in Aboriginal Australia. Aboriginal Studies Press.
Wee, L. (2010). ‘Burdens’ and ‘handicaps’ in Singapore’s language policy: on the limits of language management. Language Policy, 9(2), 97-114.
Wee, L. (2014). Linguistic chutzpah and the Speak Good Singlish movement. World Englishes, 33(1), 85-99.
Zeydanlıoğlu, W. (2012). Turkey’s Kurdish language policy.