VOL II
Autumn 2001

ISSN 1473-219X

 

 

 

 




Robert Phillipson (ed.) Rights to Language: Equity, Power and Education, London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (2000), ISBN 0-8058-3835-X, £25.00..


Over the years, I have reviewed many books on language and language teaching but this one is unusual, (I hesitate to use the word 'unique') in that it is both a scholarly work and a 'birthday present' at the same time – 'Celebrating the 60th Birthday of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas'. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive and there are plenty of examples of 'Festschriften' that are both scholarly and at the same time serve to honour particular individuals. In this case, many of Tove's friends and colleagues, who just happen to include those working at the cutting-edge of scholarship in language, education and society, were invited 'to sketch out a vision of how the challenge of our multilingual diversity might be handled in a better world' (5).

Before the editors of this journal are chastised for this informality (namely, the use of first names), let me point out that I do this partly because it reflects the 'spirit' of the book and indeed many of the contributors to this volume do likewise. Referring to a well-known text by Gramsci's Prison Notebooks ('Passage from Knowing to Understanding and to Feeling and vice versa from Feeling to Understanding'), Phillipson justifies what he calls the 'cross-fertilisation of personal experience and insight with scientific rigour' that is characteristic of many of the papers included by scholars from many parts of the world. It is this global perspective and coverage as well as the variety of contributions, poems, imagined conversations, stories as well as academic papers that give the book its universal and special appeal. It is, as the editor says, not a 'traditional (academic) product' (266).

In addition to what is described as its 'cutting-edge scholarship', the book deserves our attention because it challenges our preconceptions of scholarly texts. Academic writing does not, cannot, always do justice to the richness of human language/ languages, but in the spirit of celebration the book, so-to-speak, 'walks-the-talk' by using a variety of texts. It even provides a few glimpses of multi-lingualism by including a few passages in the original Finnish and Swedish. The book 'captures an intensity often absent' (264) from academic works and the themes and content of book are likely to be of interest and relevance to students and scholars from many disciplines, thereby neatly reflecting the wide-ranging areas covered by Tove's work.

Smollicz and Secombe provide a useful summary of this work and highlight its importance both locally and globally:

In the context of globalisation, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas's life-long research on the place of languages in multilingual societies has acquired new and urgent relevance. Her work on minority education and linguistic human rights can now be judged as providing authoritative answers to the burning social issues that must be resolved if multilingual societies are to avoid fragmentation through internal implosion or revolutionary explosion (164).

In the context of globalisation, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas's life-long research on the place of languages in multilingual societies has acquired new and urgent relevance. Her work on minority education and linguistic human rights can now be judged as providing authoritative answers to the burning social issues that must be resolved if multilingual societies are to avoid fragmentation through internal implosion or revolutionary explosion.

However, although the book does deal with the universal themes included in its title, there are no universal agreements about how to resolve some of the issues they raise, particularly when there are obvious tensions between scholars from different parts of the world. For instance, Pattanayak, in his short but hard-hitting piece, points out that 'the theoretical postures of scholars in the First and Second Worlds are directly opposed to the realities of the Third World' and also talks of the paradox of European countries building multilingual institutions like the European Union while developing countries have been struggling to create nation states based on unitary symbols – mono-lingualism – 'in the image of their former colonial masters' (46).

Similarly, Smolicz and Secombe also highlight the fallacy behind, and the dangers of 'state-imposed mono-lingualism... in postcolonial contexts where there has been little liberty and equality and much cultural and linguistic suppression in the name of stability through uniformity'. They argue that it would be 'a sad inversion of the European model if the 'inferiorisation' of languages and cultures by former colonial powers were to be continued by postcolonial independent states in relation to their own indigenous non-dominant linguistic groups' (164).

The theme of decolonisation (of the mind) is picked up in a number of papers including in 'Writing for Diversity'. This is in the form of responses to questions put by the editor to Ngugi wa Thiong'o in which he discusses taking a stand against 'linguistic imperialism' and ' an affirmation of the validity of linguistic and cultural diversity' (101). (Incidentally, this is the title of a book published by Phillipson (OUP) about an affirmation of the validity of linguistic and cultural diversity).

Neville Alexander echoes these issues in the context of South Africa and contemplates 'just the slightest possibility' that post-apartheid South Africa can avoid some of the devastating results of language policies 'imposed' by the colonisers when they retreated to Europe (170). It is true that many colonial subjects fighting for liberation may have seen English (or French et al) as an instrument for achieving their aims but the hegemony of the old imperialist languages in the school systems of African countries is tantamount to what Paulo Freire refers to as a violation of the structure of thinking. Yet, as Birgit Brock-Utue points out in her chapter on Education for All – In Whose Language, 'this is the situation most African children find themselves in today' (240).

Such violations of linguistic human rights are possibly the result of both 'cock-up' and 'conspiracy' models and not just in post-colonial contexts. Naïve understandings of language combined with a kind of 'racist' ideology have led to a situation, for example, where '... for different reasons left-wing educationalists and neo-conservatives in Germany end up with the same language policy, which aims at public mono-lingualism, while the languages of origin are the private affair of the immigrants' (125).

The papers in the collection vary both in length and the degree of their 'scholarship' and are thematically grouped into five parts:

Language: Its Diversity, its Study, and our Understanding of it...
Language Rights, their Articulation and Implementation
Equity: Justice for Speakers of All Languages
Power: Policies for Multi-lingualism
Education: Affirming Diversity, Confirming Right

However, it is clear from the complexity and diversity of their subject matter that the issues covered cannot easily be pigeon-holed in this way; and it is the cross-fertilisation of themes which provides the wealth of insights for the reader. Many of the complex issues are summarised in 'Integrative Comment: Living With a Vision' in the editor's final section.

In some ways the book is about, as well as for, Tove, but the main themes (one is almost tempted to say the main 'players') are in the editor's words 'the tongue, our languages, our mother tongues, the other tongues, and the right to linguistic and cultural diversity' (265). While Tove comes across as an extremely modest person, her vision (and some have described her as a 'visionary') is not a modest one. Like Ngugi wa Thiong'o (or Martin Luther King) she 'dreams to change the world'. She has pursued this dream with quiet tenacity for decades. There is a dual aspect to this dream: to fight linguistic injustice and inequality and, on a more positive note, to exhort everyone to see the benefits of and to try and become bi, if not multi-lingual: 'Mono-lingualism is a curable disease!'

Several of the contributors (eg, Taylor) touch on and use Tove's characterisation of inhabitants of the world as belonging to Team A and Team B . Team A members include middle-class, white males with high levels of formal education living in Western cities. Team B members belong to working class and rural (female) minority groups including 'black', 'red', 'brown', or 'yellow', who have little formal education and live in developing countries. The power relationship between the two groups is described as 'coercive' rather than 'collaborative' (ie, power 'created with others rather than imposed on or exercised over others' (180). How these polar opposite power relations are used to challenge or to perpetuate inequalities based on linguistic human rights forms the basis of many of the contributions.

Nearly all the contributions deal with genuine, everyday problems and issues facing teachers and policy-makers and are not academic exercises that are merely concerned with 'conceptual frameworks that ignore political and cultural realities' . There is something here for anyone who is interested in and/or cares about the diversity of human languages and linguistic human rights – from the primary school teacher to the professor. On her own web site, Tove prefaces her (vast and influential) list of publications by (modestly) claiming 'I am what I write'. Even if one considered the sheer volume of her work alone, she is an influential figure and this collection will not only serve to enhance her international reputation but will also act as a powerful vehicle for promoting her ideas.The editor admits that 'much more still needs to be done to work for a more equitable world linguistic order' (264), but the collection of academic papers, poems, stories, imagined conversations, etc, presented in this volume will prove a source of strength and inspiration for all those involved in addressing issues of linguistic inequality and the promotion of multi-lingualism; be they scholars, policy-makers, educators or just interested individuals.

The book is timely (European Year of Languages – 2001) and also provides a provocative challenge to some of our assumptions about language, linguistic rights, education of minorities, multi-lingualism, the place of ex-colonial languages in developing nations et al. The inclusion of e-mail addresses of all the contributors is a novel feature in the book and will encourage communication and further debate.

Rakesh Bhanot, Coventry University


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