Aboriginal people have a right to language. Unless we do something in this generation the languages will die in the next generation — the generation of my daughter.
— Lorena Fontaine, PhD student at the University of Manitoba
As a Canadian living abroad, I tend to focus on all the good things about our history and have an admittedly Pollyanna view of my passport country, including about educational issues. Yesterday, while commuting to work, I came up against a less savoury side of Canadian educational history. Listening to a CBC Ideas podcast, Undoing Linguicide, brought me face to face with the stories of the First Nations children who were taken away from their parents, over a period of more than a century, and sent to residential schools whose mandate was to eliminate the “indian” cultures and languages. Not only was this a barbaric idea, but the practices were barbaric as well, with schools functioning with rules that systematically separated siblings and punished heavily for the use of aboriginal languages. Lorena Fontaine, the lawyer/researcher featured in the program, is attempting to prove a case that the indigenous communities in Canada have a right to the survival of their languages, and to governmental support to reestablish what has been almost lost due to the residential school system. The history is complex and the podcast well worth listening to, as I can’t do their whole story justice. And of course, it’s a story that has been repeated in many places and times around the world, to many groups of indigenous peoples, it happened in France with the suppression of regional languages, and in Wales with the “Welsh Not” for children who dared to speak Welsh in schools, and many more.
In an era where hindsight has shown us that these practices were not acceptable and in an era of truth and reconciliation commissions and efforts to revive many endangered minority languages, it would seem that we have learned our lesson. Sadly, this is not entirely the case. Linguistic suppression does still happen, and although its guises are generally more subtle, it still is the same thing – prioritising one language as the “right” language, and other languages as “wrong”. It happens in schools where children and parents are told that their languages, their mother tongues, their home languages, are not acceptable. It happens in post-colonial Africa, where children are not allowed tuition in their own languages but instead forced to learn through a colonial language that they do not know. It happens in Suriname, where children need to go to school in Dutch – a language that they do not speak, they do not need, and is not a part of their world, but is considered to be a better vehicle for education than their own languages. It happens in international schools where children are told that they can play in their own languages, but must only use the school language in the classroom.
The agenda may not be as overt, and the punishments may no longer be physical, but for minority language speaking children, the results are the same. Minority languages, immigrant languages, refugee languages, hold no power in schools and children know this. And they abandon, by choice or by force, the language that they need to develop cognitively, to learn with, to connect with their families, their culture, their history.
So apparently, the lessons of history are far more easily forgotten than learned.