The purpose of this paper is to consider the ideological issues surrounding the notion of ‘official language.’ In doing so, I use French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s writing on ‘cultural capital’ to explain the ways in which the English language is constructed as having greater prestige than other, minority languages in Britain. I discuss how English as we know it today has emerged as a language of such status. I then outline a number of the ways in which the term ‘official language’ suppresses and discriminates against other languages and their users, and the social and political consequences for those minority groups.
Britain is a largely heterogeneous society, meaning that we are a country that is home to an extensive mix of nationalities, faiths and customs. Therefore, if there is a dominant group which assumes that there is one normative model of society that can and should be followed, then this creates a clear division between those who do fit into the norm, and those who do not. This assumption can be seen as an ideology which is exclusive and potentially discriminatory. (Blackledge:2000:1) Language is one of the aspects to the dominant social norm, as in a country that recognises only one language as being ‘official,’ society is seen as being divided into two clear categories, those who speak English as their first language and those who speak anything else. In Britain, there are two principle sources of ‘other’ languages.
Firstly, there exist in Britain ancient languages other than English, which have been spoken by British natives for centuries. To this day many natives of Wales speak Welsh as a first language, mainly in the North and West of the country. Secondly, immigrant families bring languages to Britain, and this will probably be the first issue that comes to mind for many Britons considering the notion of ‘official language,’ as the UK is currently experiencing enormous anxiety and political debate over immigration and the integration of immigrant families into British society.
Language can be seen as ‘cultural capital,’ as the concept was described by Bourdieu. He wrote that in contemporary society, social hierarchies are based partially on economic factors, by which power and status are determined by literal, material capital in the form of money and property. But besides this, status is decided by cultural or symbolic factors, and the possession of cultural capital. This means the knowledge and learning that is required for an individual to know how to behave as expected in various social situations. Bourdieu’s key theories include the concept of ‘habitus.’ Throughout life we learn various ways of behaving in particular social situations.
What we learn, and its effectiveness at any given time, is crucially dependent on our social backgrounds. These sets of behaviours, traits and attitudes make up what Bourdieu calls ‘habitus.’ They form a way of being and behaving which is passed down intergenerationally, through the typical patterns of behaviour of any particular group of people. We tend not to be aware of our own habitus as long as we remain in the situation which produced it. We take these particular ways of being for granted, and are not conscious of the specific social factors that taught us to behave as we do. However, when we find ourselves in a situation which is alien to our habitus, we become very aware of our inability to behave in the ways that seem appropriate – in other words, to utilise the necessary cultural capital. (Blackledge:2000:1)
Bourdieu argued that the notion of "cultural competence" is used to legitimise divisions and differences in society. Language is cultural capital in the sense that speaking certain languages gives the speaker greater and more effective access to situations in which power is claimed and negotiated. For example, language is crucial within the workplace, when applying for jobs and for promotions. Prior to this, it is a deciding factor in how well a child will perform at school. It is also key in personal, social interactions. In a country where one language is established as being the ‘official’ one, and teaching of other languages is held as relatively low priority, it is easy to see how speakers of other tongues can easily become isolated from a large portion of society and company.
Using Bourdieu’s terms, however, these disadvantages and discriminations which are faced by non-English speakers in Britain, are naturalised and considered to be right, or at least unavoidable. Immigrant families and speakers of British languages other than English, know fully well that English is the official language of this country. Therefore, English speakers might say, if they are not happy with the status or range of opportunities they currently have, they simply ought to learn English and then their situations would quickly improve.
English has been called the ‘language of globalisation.’ Carli and colleagues find that when interviewed about their languages, respondents often show implicit assumptions that English is superior to, or more prestigious than, other languages. “Some languages tend to be considered as more ‘prestigious’ or ‘dominant’ languages, whereas others are considered rather ‘stigmatised’ or ‘dominated’ languages.” (Carli et al:2003:866) In Britain, there is a very widespread assumption that citizens of other countries will, or ought to, speak English.
Whereas, it is scarcely ‘worth it’ for an English speaker to learn other languages, because they are not as ‘useful.’ So, the presence of an official language in Britain has ideological impacts for international relations. Natives of Britain speak English, and if natives of other countries should all speak English too, then this is because Britain is more socially prestigious than other countries. And, of course, speakers of other tongues who live in Britain are also crucially affected by this ideology. By implication, their language is unimportant – for trade, in employment, in social interactions – and so is not worth having. In Britain, bilingualism is associated principally with minority groups. This forms a distinct contrast this with states such as the Netherlands, where it is difficult to identify an official language, as it is typical for Dutch nationals to be at least bilingual.
In Carli et al’s research, respondents who spoke English as their first language considered it very positive for speakers of other tongues to be bilingual. But, this was because learning English was a marker of a non-English speaker’s intelligence, ambition and social awareness. Minority language speakers needed to learn English in order to ‘prove’ themselves, therefore the implication is that prior to learning English, speakers of other languages are somehow ‘untrustworthy.’ (Carli et al’s word.) There is no way for the dominant social group to test or quantify an individual’s intelligence, ambition or social awareness if they do not speak English. (Carli et al:2003:873)
Carli et al write that the rise of the nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought with them the ideological belief that a nation should be united by one common language. (Carli et al:2003:868)
However, modern English is not an independent or authentically ‘home-grown’ language. Rather, it is derived from the influences of Latin and Anglo-Saxon, as well as more contemporary European languages such as French and German. To this day, the grammar and vocabulary of the English language remain in continual evolution, making it difficult to argue for the existence of a static, ‘official’ English. (Blommaert:2005) As English was formed and changed by the influence of invaders and immigrants, it seems strange and senseless to now consider that the languages of contemporary immigrants have nothing to contribute to the evolution of our dominant language. As it is, the insistence that all residents of the UK conduct their business and even their personal interactions, in English, means that minority languages risk becoming obsolete.
In a study of East-West ‘border communities’ in Europe, Carli and his colleagues conducted interviews with respondents from six different communities, to discover how they saw their own languages, and the languages of a perceived ‘other,’ as relating to national identity. The authors report that it was widely believed among the respondents, that their first language influenced much of the ways in which they expressed their own characters, attitudes and personalities. “Informants are convinced that it is the ‘mother tongue’ which determines thought, social behaviour, and exhibition or control of affection and emotions.” (Carli et al:2003:868)
As the logical extension of this belief, then, if an individual changes from the language they are normally accustomed to speaking, so the way they behave and relate to others in social contexts changes significantly. They believe it would be difficult for them to express certain emotions or ideas, if they had to speak in a different tongue. Evidently these views are subjective, and it would be difficult to devise a test that determined objectively whether people really do change their behaviour and ways of thinking when they change their language. However, the research is enough to conclude that if a speaker of one language was required (in order to gain more social status or acceptability) to take up speaking in another tongue, they believe they would be losing something of their identity. Thus there are clear personal motivations for a community to maintain the language they are used to.
Doing so, however, opens a minority language-speaking community up to a wealth of prejudice, and material disadvantage. Education systems in Britain value homogenisation, “assimilation to a prescribed norm.” (Blackledge:2000:1) Bourdieu wrote that teaching in schools requires students to appreciate particular language structures and models of learning. Therefore, cultural and linguistic experience determines how well a child will adjust to school. Evidently, this affects their performance in examinations, but also the way that they interact with teachers and other pupils.
Many writers have argued that some children experience a ‘learned helplessness’ based on their experience that they are not expected, and do not expect themselves, to perform well in education, and by extension in the workplace. I would consider it crucial to remember that one language does not inherently possess more cultural capital than another. However, language is one factor which determines how successfully an individual integrates themselves into various social situations. It is when this process occurs, that the individual’s grasp of the dominant language becomes ‘cultural capital.’
In Bourdieu’s view, schools, and the curriculum, operate as though all children had equal access to the cultural resource of the English language. Thus, examinations are designed with the intention of being an unbiased indication of a pupil’s level of intelligence, academic learning and sheer hard work. They do not take into account the number of pupils who, before even beginning to understand the content of their lessons, have to make a determined and focused effort to understand the language and format in which those lessons are presented. (Blackledge: 2000:1)
Blackledge writes that it has been widely evidenced that children from linguistic minorities consistently achieve less highly than their English speaking classmates, but though the government has accepted this fact, it still makes policy as though children’s academic achievements can be objectively measured by one, universal set of standards. (Blackledge:2000:1) The OFSTED system of judging whether schools are achieving to the desired standards or not, and the publication of SAT and GCSE results and league tables, are all geared towards homogenising education, and judging schools’ successes by a prescribed norm.
Writers including Bourdieu and also Woolard have discussed how this discrimination can be seen acceptable in much of the public’s eyes, despite the fact that Britain may be seen as a relatively liberal country in which overt persecution towards an ethnic group is generally considered unacceptable. They argue that although it is socially frowned upon, and indeed illegal, to discriminate against an individual on grounds of their skin colour or ethnic background, it may be perfectly common for the same individuals to be discriminated against because their first language is not English. This discrimination is hidden, for example in the policies and practices of companies hiring staff.
A company may argue that they cannot be expected to hire a candidate whose ‘insufficient’ grasp of English simply makes them less able to perform a role than a White, British candidate, and pass over the fact that if all companies do this, then it makes it virtually impossible for members of certain ethnic or national minorities to gain employment in many areas of work. And, it is not uncommon for companies to discriminate on grounds of accent, claiming that, for example, White speakers of English cannot understand Asian accents and therefore the Asian employee is unable to deal with customers, stakeholders and providers. This assumption fails to consider that in multi-ethnic cities there may be many customers, stakeholders and providers who themselves find it difficult to understand speakers of the Queen’s English!
Speaking a foreign language designates a person as ‘Other.’ Forming opinions about a cultural ‘other’ involves making judgments which even if not false, tend to be magnified and generalised. So, members of an ‘othered’ community are seen as being ‘all the same.’ (Carli et al:2003:871)
In Britain, there is great prejudice and stigma around traditional Asian communities, not least seen in present anti-terrorism measures. Asian immigrants, as opposed to say their Afro-Caribbean counterparts, or immigrants from within Europe, are seen as being unwilling to integrate in the host culture. The ongoing presence of traditional culture in Asian communities is seen, not as complementary or even indifferent to White British culture, but as a direct challenge to the dominant social order. Language can be seen as a large part of this seeming inflexibility.
So it can be seen that the imposition of an ‘official language’ in Britain brings about a number of situations in which speakers of other tongues are discriminated against or disadvantaged. Paradigms using the notions of cultural ‘capital’ and status reveal language to be a tool with which individuals and communities assert and maintain power. By maintaining an ‘official language’ in the UK, we naturalise and justify many of the social divisions that emerge as a result of discrimination against non-English speakers.
Furthermore, the status of the English language worldwide, is both result and ongoing cause of Britain’s greater level of political power than many other countries. It seems easy to see that if other commonly spoken languages were accepted as complementary to English, if teaching of these languages were improved in schools (and more schools prepared to teach lessons in the minority languages spoken by some pupils) and if more business were conducted in these instead of only one official language, then we may see improvements both in international relations, and the well-being of our society here in Britain.
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