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The Learning Conference 2003

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Presentation Details


International Language Policy and Education

Dr Janina Brutt-Griffler.

The recent focus within linguistics on endangered and heritage languages has constructed a scholarly and language policy discourse predicated on an unproblematic division of languages into dominant ('alien') and indigenous ('local') languages. Viewed through this lens, language policy is often viewed as an instrument of ensuring the survival of indigenous languages from the encroachment of dominant languages, principally English, thereby safeguarding the rights of minority ethnic communities (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2002). Scholars have successfully problematized the status of languages like English outside the mother tongue context, showing that English has become indigenized and changed as it has spread (Jenkins, 2001; Kachru, 1986; Seidlhofer, 2001) and that its spread does not necessarily represent the result of a conscious effort emanating from an imperial center (Brutt-Griffler 2002). At the same time, recent work has begun to analyze the category of indigenous language, hitherto accepted as authentic products of indigenous cultures in need of special protection (Mufwene, 2001). Historical investigations of languages like Zulu and Xhosa within South Africa (Makoni, 1998) and Shona in Zimbabwe (Brutt-Griffler 2002) have shown that these languages were 'invented' (Makoni, 1998) by missionaries and colonial authorities, and assigned to speakers at times in very arbitrary ways. The protection of these indigenous languages is a powerful mechanism of entrenching imperialism. The notion of indigenous language is historical and contextually contingent-what it illustrates is the simplicity of the notion that by shifting from English to an indigenous language one is necessarily counteracting the impact of imperialism.

Post-apartheid South Africa, often cited as having implemented enlightened language policy in a multilingual nation for its recognition of eleven official languages, presents a case of language policy constructed on the basis of unanalyzed assumptions of language rights theory. Included among those are nine African languages, at least some of which fall into the category of 'invented'.

In this paper, I will present rich linguistic and ethnographic data from South Africa and Zimbabwe on Primary Language Socialization. The data comes from two longitudinal studies which involved total six family units; each family unit consists of at least two children age 5 to 8; three families were selected per each context. To operationalize data recordings and transcription, children's primary language socialization in this study was framed as 'event interactions'. Drawing on the work of Heath (1983) and Ochs et al. (1986), I refer to 'event interactions' when at least two people (children or adults and children) engage in a meaningful oral exchange. An example of such an event is a dinner conversation, when children ride on the bus to school, or when children interact with each other at school, both in the classroom or outside.

One of the principal goals of this line of research is to uncover the languages and linguistic competence that children develop and are socialized into, the nature of such competence, and the implications it has for educational practice of young adults.

I will demonstrate that the language socialization in what we might call the language of everyday encounters in South Africa and Zimbabwe often takes place not in these languages but often in pan-ethnic argots (Brutt-Griffler and Makoni, in press). The data suggest that socialization takes place in a linguistic continuum rather than in languages with clearly defined boundaries and corresponding ethnic affiliations. It presents a more complex notion of language competence of the multilingual subject that needs to be recognized in the context of educational practice and policy implementation with respect to English and heritage languages. It will be argued that this circumstance problematizes the relation of language and identity/ethnicity and thereby raises important questions for language policy. First, it debunks the myth that while the use of English in educational settings in 'English as a second language contexts' prevents children from studying in the language of home literacy, the 'mother tongue' as medium of instruction ensures that result. As such, the choice between English or a 'mother tongue' as the medium of instruction, already fraught with socioecononimc implications (Brutt-Griffler, 2002b), also presents educational complexities that have been insufficiently considered. Second, mother tongue education can represent a sociopolitical policy of fostering ethnic divisions similar to that pursued by the apartheid regime in South Africa to facilitate white rule. Teaching of the mother tongue can thereby be, far from safeguarding 'indigenous cultures', a way of reifying invented identities/ethnicities that represent a 'shaping of cultural memory' (Makoni, 1998b). This paper concludes by drawing out implications for the transformative role of international language policy in education.


Dr Janina Brutt-Griffler  (United States)
Associate Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
The University of Alabama

Janina Brutt-Griffler is Associate Professor of English and Linguistics in the Department of English at the University of Alabama. Her research interests include sociolinguistics, world English, second language acquisition, international language policy, and written discourse analysis. She has published in major English studies journals. Her recent book World English: A study of its development (2002) traces the history of English language spread from the eighteenth century to the present, combining that with a study of its language change. It links linguistic and sociolinguistic variables that have conditioned the evolution and change of English, putting forward a new framework of language spread and change. She is currently working on an edited volume on English and Ethnicity and a book on Exploration of applied linguistics and literacy in English and African languages.

  • Language acquisition
  • Language socialization
  • Language policy
  • Heritage languages

(30 min Conference Paper, English)