Language, language liberation, and ending war

War is the most irrational activity that human societies engage in. Ending it will not be easy. It will require more than politicians talking with each other. It will need large numbers of people all over the world communicating about the causes of war, listening to each other’s stories and healing from how they and their people have suffered from war. It will require people committing themselves to working together to end war, taking leadership, and developing strategies. Language oppression, along with nationalism, racism, sexism, and the long human history of war and colonialism are major challenges to ending war. In this post I will focus on language oppression.

What is language oppression?

I define language oppression as the systematic mistreatment or neglect of people who do not speak the dominant language of the world, a community, or nation fluently (or who choose to speak in their native language). The mistreatment or neglect can be carried out by societal institutions and/or by people who have been conditioned to act in harsh ways with the mistreatment supported by the society. Language oppression can be:

  • Blatant or subtle
  • Personal or institutionalized
  • Conscious or unconscious

An example of a blatant, personal, conscious act of language oppression is calling somebody an insulting name and saying “Speak English. We are in America!” A subtle personal act (conscious or unconscious) might be not making friends with a neighbor who is not fluent in your language. An unconscious personal act might be assuming another person is not as smart as you because they don’t speak your language, or feeling impatient at a community or political meeting when time is taken for interpretation. Sometimes the person who receives the message might think it is blatant, but the person acting it out might think it is subtle or insignificant. An example of an institutionalized act of language oppression is using standardized tests in English as a measure of intelligence or achievement with students who are not fluent in English. You can think of other examples. Since English is the dominant language in the world, native English speakers can play an important role in ending language oppression.Atwood 2

Language and War

The Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood wrote, “War is what happens when language fails.” I understand her to mean that a requirement for preventing war is that people talk to and respect each other and each other’s language. This is more challenging and more complex than it might seem at first.

When countries, or even individuals, disagree, there are often deep feelings that interfere with people understanding each other, even when they speak the same language. But when different languages are involved, it becomes even more difficult to communicate precisely. Some words or phrases do not have precise translations. In direct conversation, body language and facial expressions may lead the receiver of a message to misinterpret its meaning. Informality can be interpreted as lack of respect. Direct eye contact or lack of it has different meanings in different cultures. In addition, people can have attitudes that their language or culture is superior or inferior to another, or that ability to speak a certain language is a sign that the speaker is more intelligent. Racism, nationalism, and unfriendly attitudes toward immigrants and refugees from war, or other severe conditions, often intensify bias against people who do not speak the dominant language. Speaking rapidly to people who are not fluent in your language, or using abstract or academic language, is oppressive. This is a practice that I fall into at times when leading workshops.

I am hopeful, since people inherently care about each other and want to work together for a better world, that human beings can end language oppression.

In order to end war, people from different countries and cultures will need to mandelacommunicate clearly and respectfully with each other. Nelson Mandela said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Since it is impossible for every person to learn every major language, communication will require skilled interpretation. Interpretation is also needed because most people think best in their native language. It is also important in meetings and workshops to give time for people to think in their native language. And we have to remember that, “Each language has its own take on the world. That’s why a translation can never be absolutely exact, and therefore, when you enter another language and speak with its speakers, you become a slightly different person; you learn a different sort of world.” (Kate Grenville, Australian author)

At the workshops that I lead for international audiences on healing from war there are often participants with as many as 14 native languages, and there is no one language that everyone understands well. As a result, we have had to address the issue of language oppression. In addition to arranging* for interpretation we undertake a range of activities to raise people’s awareness of language oppression. I present the definition of language oppression and talk about how language oppression might happen at the workshop. I ask people in pairs or small groups

  • to talk about any feelings they have about taking our time to do interpretation, for example feelings about interpretation slowing down the agenda.
  • to talk about what languages their parents or grandparents and great grandparents spoke, and whether they speak any of them. If they do not, what are their feelings about having lost them?
  • to say aloud “I am a human being, no better or worse than any other human being.” And then talk about the thoughts and feelings they have.
  • to talk about memories of when they felt better or worse than someone else, and how that affects their relationships with people who do not speak their language or whose language they do not speak.
  • to speak to a partner for a few minutes in their second or third language (one in which they are not fluent).

Language liberation

I define language liberation as the effort to (1) recover from any pain and disrespect that people have experienced by belonging to a particular language group, and (2) create places and processes of equality and inclusion where people can help each other recover their understanding of who they really are, the significance of their culture and languages, and give people the opportunity to think and communicate in their native language.

What you can do:

  • Find a partner or small group and address the questions in the above bullets.
  • Make friends with immigrants.
  • Discuss “Any time you think some other language is strange, remember that yours is just as strange, you’re just used to it.” Anonymous
  • Read and discuss the article “I am raising my daughter to speak three languages. A stranger demanded I ‘speak English’ to her” by Esmeralda Bermudez. Reading this article motivated me to write this post. You can also read the article in Spanish.

* If you are interested in the mechanics of this interpretation process go to One system for interpreting in a setting with many non-native English speakers.

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