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The Language Colonialism Of English

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Even today, the world is still reeling from the impacts that colonialism had on most countries. The intense after-effects are mostly felt in terms of economy and progress. There are places that still do not have running water or access to toilets, simply because they were drained of resources before they could become sovereign countries. Some still think that access to education and gender parity is far off. Somehow, studies being done today are finding newer and deeper issues caused by colonialism. With newer ideas like monetary reparations being brought to the forefront, the discourse has opened up to talk about even more deep-rooted ideas that may be impacting the world currently.


One such idea that is being discussed is language. On the surface, we see that we are surrounded by English everywhere, in every aspect of our life. However, perceiving the amount of exposure to a language that is not quite related to any other language we speak, it becomes an odd situation. This brings us to the issue of a more niche part of the colonialism of culture, which is linguistic colonialism. Linguistic colonialism is when a language is imposed on the colonised population, and they are forced to speak it. When the British Empire had conquered a vast number of countries, the first thing that they did was make English compulsory. Whether this was only to facilitate easier communication or also for other reasons, the impact of being forced to speak a certain language to be perceived a certain way, has had drastic effects on cultural preservation all over the world.


Cultural preservation is an important part of contemporary anthropology. Culture is something that is incredibly informative and rich when it comes to studying human civilisation as well as how it evolves. It can be very helpful to study languages used by cultures, since language is concentrated with a treasure trove of ideas and phrases that are unique to the culture that it belongs to. When one language is made universal and is made to undermine local languages, it tends to push people towards abandoning their own languages. This is due to a multitude of reasons like wanting to fit in, wanting to be in a certain echelon, or simply survival or legal reasons. When this happens, a large part of culture, namely oral and communicative culture, is either weakened or eradicated. According to an article on Goethe, “The extinction of any language leads to permanent loss of unique information previously embedded in that language.”


In India, good schools are perceived as schools that instruct students in the medium of English. “Vernacular” schools are dubbed insufficient. Most people between the ages of 16-20 who live in metropolitan cities have mostly or completely lost touch with their native languages. In a country with such diversity of linguistic culture, it is a shame that it is not being addressed more fervently. Of course, this does not mean that in order to address these issues, certain languages should be made mandatory in schools. That would obviously not work. According to Teresa McCarty and Sheilah Nicholas, “No language regrows in the exact same way or in the same direction.” This means that information in a language that is dead is not retrievable through learning that language, but rather, by studying it. The thing to tackle here, is the idea that a certain language is superior to another. More information about language loss and cultural deprivation can be doled out through workshops or by teaching students about the history of languages. Even a little awareness would go a long way.


Linguistic colonialism was never very dangerous until now. There have always been exchanges of vocabulary throughout the history of the world. That is how languages evolve. However, the threat of cultural homogenisation, based on simply the power dynamics of countries in the last century, pose a threat to diversity. The snowballing effects of othering, racism, stricter borders, etc. will only intensify if we do not address it now.  Many cultures are not in the practice of writing things down. These cultures only rely on verbal prowess. According to Indigenous Corporate Training, “Many indigenous languages are endangered globally and the rate of loss is estimated at one language every two weeks.” These, too, are endangered cultures. 


The bottom line is that this is an issue that sprung from colonialism, and was pushed forward by the idea of “globalisation”. With globalisation came newer ideas of what and who constituted the upper and lower classes. With these ideas, one of the pillars of culture that was impacted was language. When we refuse to address this constant dilution of culture in every form of media imaginable, we render older culture as “primitive”; a very classist idea at its core. The best we can do, in order to tackle this issue, is to spread as much awareness about this as possible, and take steps to overcome our tainted perception of it.


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