Springboard for Talent - Tackling the Inherent Politics of Language Policy

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Dec 14, 2017
by Louise Hallman, Tomas De La Rosa, and Mirva Villa
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Springboard for Talent - Tackling the Inherent Politics of Language Policy

In a world of 7000 languages, how does policy affect which are used? From left to right: Hywel Coleman, Mohamed Daoud, Prosperous Nankindu, François Grin, and Bessie Dendrinos speaking at Salzburg Global Seminar

In English, the words policy and politics are distinct – this is not the case in all languages. “All language policy is rooted in politics,” remarked one panelist wryly, opening a discussion on “What makes good language policy?”

As another panelist further lamented, “If you want to build a house, you hire an architect... But language teachers are not seen as specialists,” further underlining the role that politicians – rather than linguists and educators – have in deciding national language policies.

Often, for better or worse, these policies are driven by national elites for some greater cause, from the enhancement of social cohesion and trade and diplomatic relations to the suppression of minorities.
In Uganda, for example, English is the official language and used as the primary language of instruction in schools. This is much to the consternation of the king of Buganda, who wants to see Luganda used as the language of instruction in schools in the region. Imposed by colonial rule, English is still highly valued by politicians as a means to access global trade and dialogue. Regional trade is conducted in Kiswahili, the second official language of the country, and the official language of many neighboring countries. However, “if you want to campaign and win elections,” politicians need to also speak Luganda, (the most widely spoken of the 40 local languages in the country) as this is the language most of their electorate speak and understand.

In China’s interior, language policy is more inclusive, allowing bilingualism with local languages – something that is not encouraged in the more restive borderlands.

Many post-colonial countries and other secessionist states have adopted local languages as their official languages, helping to affirm their national identity. For example, Tunisia adopted Arabic after the end of French colonial rule. However, Tunisian language policy has not been consistent, with the language of instruction changing to French in some subjects at different stages of education leading to confusion and accusations of elitism. A similar accusation was leveled at a university in Milan that offered degree programs in English rather than Italian – a move that the ultimately deemed unconstitutional.

Language learning – both as official national languages and foreign language acquisition – is often rooted in power. “The idea that English is a neutral lingua franca is a myth,” said one Fellow. While there are over 7000 languages in the world, 96% of which are outside of Europe, English is still the most common official and studied language in the world, followed by French and Spanish. But in a increasingly multi-polar and rapidly globalizing world, will this continue to be the norm? Or will Chinese and Arabic surpass them?

English teaching has long been advocated by institutions such the British Council, but some countries have already begun to shift their foreign language policies; Chinese is increasingly supplanting English as the foreign language of choice for students in Korea, for example. Private foundations and businesses are now trying to drive interest towards other foreign languages, such as the Qatar Foundation and now Qatar Foundation International and their promotion of Arabic learning and cultural understanding.

So what makes a good language policy? Following inputs from the panelists, one key recommendation repeated around the room was that language policy needs to be flexible; a top-down approach needs to be met with a bottom-up approach, recognizing minority speakers and their rights. Good language policy needs to reflect the reality of the languages used in a country and its various regions; engage and include a variety of linguistic communities; discourage ethnolinguistic conflicts; consult and adhere to the advice of language experts; and be well funded, implemented, promoted and understood.

To continue the discussion, as part of our Hot Topic we asked participants from the session, Springboard for Talent – Language Learning and Integration in a Globalized World, to give their views on what makes "good" language policy.

“Language policy is supposed to do good, and not to do harm, and that means you have to be very clear about your goals and be sure that you have a way to assess the extent to which you are approaching those goals. Not much language policy actually fulfills all the goals that it sets [out] to reach, but much of language policy can at least get us closer to where we want to be, but for this you really need to know where you want to get to and for what reason.”

François Grin
Professor of Economics, Faculty of Translation and Interpreting, University of Geneva, Switzerland

“The word good is relative… A good language policy is a policy we should not be seeing to cause problems, but rather to have solutions and resources to language issues in a community. A good language policy is also the one which involves all stakeholders as it is being designed. It is one which embraces the environment of what the communities need, rather than having one which does not consider the community needs. Good policy is where we have teachers trained to be able to implement the policy, especially if it has to do with education. A good policy should be relevant to the needs of a community, like trade, administration, political needs, and the like.”

Prosperous Nankindu
Minister of State for Education, Kingdom of Buganda, Uganda

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘good’. I would use the word ‘feasible’. I would use the word ‘successful’, but maybe necessarily not even that because most language policies fail, actually, like language programs in education. The majority of language programs fail – no matter how well-planned they are, no matter how much financing you put in them, no matter how dedicated the people are – because there are a lot of other stakeholders that play a role in how successful a policy is when it comes to implementation and actual adoption of the policy.

There’s much more reason for it to fail than to succeed, and that’s why we need this consensus: to develop that sense of ownership among the various stakeholders that this is a good policy. I like the discussion of the top-down and the bottom-up processes meeting somewhere in the middle, and manage all these conflicting interests of any particular language or languages. So ‘good’ is not the right term.”

Mohamed Daoud
Professor of Applied Linguistics at the Higher Institute of Languages of Tunis (ISLT)

"When we say good language policy there are three dimensions to this. Firstly, “Is the policy designed in a technically effective way?” This is one measure of being good or not so good.

A second dimension to this is “Is it good in its purposes?” In other words, are these humanistic purposes – purposes that will assist minorities and minoritized populations, [and] enrich society and culture.

These measures of good are about quality of the content, and then the third aspect of good would be “Is it able to be implemented?” This is an aspect of the design (the first one) but it goes beyond it; implemented, evaluated, and revised properly to be effective in the long term. Many policies are actually quite short term – they succeed, are adopted by political authorities, but they don't last very long and they're not sustained very far – so I think [long-term implementation] is a dimension of good."

Joseph Lo Bianco
Professor of Language and Literacy Education at the University of Melbourne

"Good language policy depends on good for who and for what purpose; it really depends on who wants to implement what in order to make somebody’s life easier. We assume language policy to help people, but if language policy ignores the micro-level – the people who actually implement the policy – it will not be successful.

Good language policy depends on good for who, but successful language policy is actually to really pay attention to people who implement language practice and make the lives of people who use the language easier."

Kayako Hashimoto
Lecturer, School of Languages and Cultures, University of Queensland, Australia


The session, Springboard for Talent: Language Learning and Integration in a Globalized World is part of Salzburg Global Seminar multi-year series  Education for Tomorrow’s World. The session is being held in partnership with ETS, the Qatar Foundation and Microsoft. This project was also supported by The Erste Foundation. To keep up to date with the conversations taking place during the session, follow #SGSedu on Twitter and Instagram.