At the Symposium for Language and Exclusion hosted at the United Nations Plaza in New York City on May 7 of this year, Fernand de Varennes delivered the keynote address, poignantly titled “Unfinished and Challenging Business: Language, Exclusion and Human Rights at the United Nations.”
Varennes discussed in the address the sometime problematic nature of official state languages and how they often exclude huge swathes of the population in countries. Even in countries where there are many speakers of an official language, other large numbers of citizens of a country may be effectively cut out of participating in politics or understanding official documents.
Beyond the political sphere, Varennes also discuss the implications of language discrimination in other levels of society. I was especially shocked by the statistics of illiteracy in countries where school is taught solely in an official language and the the percentage of the population with fluency in that language is low. These countries also tend to be poorer countries, but Varennes suggests that there is a definite connection between language of instruction and illiteracy: “Poverty is an important factor in low literacy rates in the world by the way, but as you can see with the last column here poverty alone is not determinative: poverty connected to a complete disconnect between the language understood well by the population and the language of instruction would appear to be the most important factors towards the perfect storm for illiteracy.”
For Varennes, this is a human rights issue, related to the right to education. Children should have access to instruction in a language they understand.
At the end of the address, Varennes references the book of Esther, and how the edict reversing Xerxes’ earlier order to kill the Jews in Babylon was “written in the script of each province and the language of each people and also to the Jews in their own script and language” (Esther 8:9). This official document was lifesaving for that people group, and was so because they could understand it. So how does that relate to language teachers who want to be socially conscious and promote justice? I was struck by these wondering questions after reading Varennes’ address.
As a language teacher, what can I do to make sure my students receive instruction they understand?
What if I am the teacher of a language that is an “official” one that often pushes aside the native languages of my students in politics, school, and other public spheres? What does that mean for the way I teach and what I advocate for?