The origins of monolingualism in colonial history: decolonization

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July 18, 2017
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Monolingual ideology has always influenced curriculum policies, teaching practices, assessment and materials development despite the normative reality that the majority of the 21st century citizens use more than one language to affirm who they are and access knowledge (Garcia and Li Wei, 2014). These biased practices have invariably positioned multilingual learners as perpetual failures who tend to be associated with high failure rate, drop out rates, push out rates and ‘poor’ skills in many parts of the world. Besides these policy proscriptions, multilingual speakers always resist monolingual conventions and express themselves using all their discursive resources in non-formal contexts. It is their way of being. In order to harness cultural biodiversity and to maximize educational success for these speakers, we can amplify their resistance by re-imagining a world read and understood from a multilingual-centred perspective.


To gravitate towards a multilingual-centred world, it is fitting to begin with the question that has not been cogently answered: how did the pre-colonial multilingual world give way to monolingual definition and prescriptions that dominate education policies world wide? Educational linguists conclusively attribute monolingual bias to the idea of nation state that took shape during the European Enlightenment period. Accordingly, Europe created sovereign states with strict borders to bound and protect people of similar ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. It follows that this boundary creation process was a response to the medieval period where Europe experienced turbulent seasons of foreign invasion and takeover. Italy, for example, became the last bastion of foreign lordship. To guard one’s ipseity, it became imperative to recreate a world where the self is separated from the other (ipseity vs otherness). As a result, the European middle class had a vision of territorized national languages through an isomorph of monolingualisms.  Over time, peace and stability led to the birth of civilization and rapid progress in Europe’s modern history. This milestone for development has erroneously led to the belief that civilization, stability and human development are only possible through the use of one language in each nation state. When taken to the extreme, national purism became a measure of control and exclusion of other languages and their speakers in many regions where the ideology of oneness had taken root. We note that the birth of monolingualism coincided with the desire to control what was seen as the chaotic Medieval Europe and to prevent its recurrence in the modern world. In other words, a nation state with multiple languages was perceived as risky for nation building and social cohesion and prone to social disintegration and civil wars.


It is noteworthy that colonialism, which officially began with the Berlin Convention in 1884, carried through the nation statism ideals and transferred them into the newly founded colonies. To assure expansion of these ideals, one colonial language was promoted at the expense of many local languages to advance national unity and civilization of the colonial outposts. Beyond this belief, imposition of foreign languages was a marker of control to change the socio-cultural realities of these colonies so that they resembled the colonial ‘motherland’. The degree of sameness with the colonial motherland was a measure of progress, success and development. For this reason, Africa and the rest of the global South experienced an unprecedented wave of imposed foreign languages that replaced the local languages in all spheres of prestige such as government, education and economy. At this stage, it made sense for Europe to define civilization and development through the one nation, one language doctrine and to assume a patriarchal responsibility to change the world in the likeness of itself. In this connection, the states that are still further away from the European ideals are defined as the developing world- what is today referred to as the global South.


An equally notable is that after three to four hundred years of colonization, the colonies inherited the ideals of sameness and promoted them through monolingual policies, which have led to a perennial abyss of underdevelopment. This adoption has created linguistic barriers between the privileged elite and the masses who are disempowered to contribute meaningfully to the socio-economic development of their countries. Without active use of the languages of the masses, underdevelopment is the logical end for the post-colonized people residing in the global South. It is for this reason we caution the so-called independent states against adopting models that were not designed support local development. If monolingualism was entrenched to favour the ideals of the colonizing states, why would post-colonial states adopt the same tools that were used to subjugate them?  We argue that monolingualism is an invention of both nation statism and colonialism and that strategic gravitation towards multilingual education paradigms in the postcolonial contexts is a precondition for decolonization and postmodern development.

Excerpt adapted from Multilanguaging, decolonization and education in the global South (Leketi Makalela, 2017)


What is a multilingual competence? “Mother tongue” as a colonizing and gender insensitive concept


Sub-Saharan African countries have had complex linguistic systems that were never understood by the missionary linguists in the 1800. Despite colonial attempts to rule by dividing the languages into artificial entities that are bounded and sealed from one another, individual multilingualism thrived and resisted the boundaries of separation. To date, an average African child speaks about three languages before they start school. A recent study on language use in peri-urban contexts showed that most South African learners and teachers use multiple languages to teach all content despite the School Governing Bodies’ selection of English as the only language of learning and teaching. Teachers are able to use languages flexibly in this context as the learners understand and use more languages as part of their natural habitus. Where many languages are acquired simultaneously, concepts such as mother tongue, first language, and additional language have little or no bearing because they reflect context bias and fail to explain the acquisition conditions of multilingual speakers. Yet, the multilingual competence of speakers in the global South is not fully recognized by language policies and literacy practitioners.  Also, the whole idea of placing the mother in the forefront of language learning and nurturing is construed for an ancient time when mothers where not allowed to be out of the house, to work or fend for themselves. If we are truly a 21st century people, why do we carry this over and enforce it especially in contexts where not one language is acquired from birth? Perhaps mother tongues? People with multilingual competence, mothers, fathers and children have a repertoire of languages. It is a misnomer to speak and conceive these speakers as having mother tongues or the mothers themselves as having one language of nurturing (if we are to accept this for a minute). Mother tongue is not relevant for multilingual speakers and it is also taking biological conception of language development and ignored all about social aspects, which do not place the mothers as the only custodians of language acquisition.


Excerpt modified from Multilanguaging, decolonization and education in the global South (Leketi Makalela, 2017)

Towards Multilanguaging: mobility and complex language use

The advent of globalization increased mobility of people within and between nation states. As people move from one geographical area to another they also move with and into languages. This complex mobility web has invariably broken the traditional language standards and language boundaries.


While uber-mobility is at the centre stage in the 21st C human activity and boundaries between traditional language standards leak, it is important to reflect that many African countries have always had this linguistic phenomenon of flexibility, fluidity and confluence that predates colonialism.  More recent studies on translanguaging as pedagogical strategy in South Africa show that the African cultural competence of Ubuntu has always permeated languaging phenomena in Sub-Saharan where no one language was complete without the other. Recent global movements have no doubt accelerated linguistic complexity, which is defined as fuzzy languaging in ways that are more complex than the current spaces of superdiversity based on immigration. As stated above and repeated here, many townships in South Africa, for example, attract informal settlements and become the first landing spot for immigrants from the neighbouring states in Southern Africa, notably, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi, Somalia and the DRC. Apart from the attraction based on comparable socio-economic status of the people living in the townships, there is a cultural congruence founded on the immigrants’ ability to speak some of the languages in South Africa. This new linguistic complexity formed from old and new contact situations that involve a meaning making process based on simultaneous use of more than two languages is best defined as multilanguaging. Multilanguaging would naturally occur in instances where speakers have acquired more than two languages simultaneously and where there is more than one language of input and output in a discourse for meaning making purposes. Schools experiencing multilaguaging require new lenses to reimagine and recreate models that will explain this way of sense making. This book volume takes this multilingual complexity into account as a new social order and charts pathways for language use in classrooms to enhance both ontological and epistemic accesses for children and students who grow up in complex multilingual encounters.


Excerpt adapted from Multilanguaging, decolonization and education in the global South (Leketi Makalela, 2017)



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