20.02.2012 - Education Sector

Colette Grinevald : “Speaking your mother tongue is not a disability!”

C. Cayon-Sélenium

Dr Colette Grinevald of the University of Lyon (France) is a pioneer in endangered languages. A Harvard Ph.D. in linguistics and UNESCO expert, she worked as a linguist in the USA for 30 years with many field trips to Latin America to document, defend and promote endangered languages and the people who speak them.

As a specialist in endangered languages, what is your view on International Mother Language Day?

Mother Language Day should literally celebrate the languages of all the mothers of the world and send them the message that they have the right to speak their own language to their children, because they have important things to say in that language to their children.  It should be the day of all the languages in the world including the “little languages”. Out of about 6000 languages no more than 200 have the status of national languages and a few hundred more have established literacy.

How do you record endangered languages?

I use a method called “research action”. It is an exchange – the people give me their language and I give something back. We work as equals and I recognize the speakers are the real experts! I have worked this way at writing the grammar of two languages: Jakaltek Popti' of Guatemala (Maya) and Rama of Nicaragua (Chibcha).  And I have been supervising many doctoral students working in other countries that way. Understand that as a linguist I don’t “invent” the grammar, I transcribe the way people talk, and analyze the rules of grammar they follow when they talk.  I write then scientific studies for the linguists but also materials for the community, to show them some of what I have learned of their language, to show them their grammar.

What are your views on bilingual education?

Bilingual education is complex and needs clear goals and adapted messages. There are in fact many models that do not all equally support mother languages.  The most common bilingual education model used to be a transitional model, using the mother language at first to help the child adapt to the school and not drop out too soon, but then switching to the dominant language and discontinuing the mother tongue altogether.  A newer model aiming at more respect for the mother languages is that of the intercultural bilingual education that allows children to be educated in their language longer, while teaching also in the national language, and promotes the mother languages in their cultural context.  One hears also talks of bilingual education often coming under the category of “inclusive” education, i.e. an education meant to help the children integrate society, a model thought originally for the integration of children with disabilities, but speaking your mother tongue is not a disability!  We must go beyond this narrow idea of inclusion when talking of mother tongues.

How then can we make inclusion more “inclusive”?

The real challenge of a truly bilingual education is to educate speakers of the dominant language group as well as speakers of indigenous languages about each others’ cultures, that is what the term ‘intercultural’ means really. What we have learned from 50 years of practice is that the problem is not really about languages at all, it’s all about discrimination and respect for other cultures. But even schoolteachers who speak indigenous languages have to feel convinced that their languages are good.  This is what I see as part of my job as linguist, to show to them, and others, that their language is OK, even if it does not follow the structure of the national language.  And to think of inviting native speakers in to the classrooms, even if they have not been schooled themselves, because they know the language and the culture and can help teach them to the children.

What is the place of literacy in mother language teaching?

There has been a real focus on literacy as the answer to education, and pressure to turn mother languages into literate languages, following standards of national languages.  But we are now re-thinking the centrality of writing, as the real life of languages is naturally in speaking and listening. One shouldn’t see illiterate people as ignorant people, and indigenous languages as primitive languages in need of writing to be real languages. People confuse written form and “true form” as if the mother tongues could only be languages once reduced to writing. .Writing and literacy are very valuable, there is not doubt, but we must remember that the natural state of languages is the spoken word, and value also the spoken word in education. In any case we see more and more how new technologies can give back the oral forms of languages their place.

How does technology facilitate minority languages?

The explosion of new technologies is fast changing the situation of minority languages.  For one thing, they allow oral transmission of those mother languages across continents. In the Guatemalan village where I worked I saw the development of technologies that enabled immigrants maintain better contacts between USA and the family at home.  Before the 70s there was little contact - only occasional letters written by “public writers” to be read aloud to the family back home. Then I remember the miracle of cassette recorders and the family messages in the local language that travelled back and forth on cassettes.  I even paid sometime people in cassettes, to support this communication! Today there is internet in town and people can telephone or Skype each other, although the local language is less used now.  Beyond this private use of technologies that can help maintain languages, more and more communities around the world are using them for teaching programmes. From Canada to Colombia, from Norway to New Zealand, mother languages are documented and taught in more attractive and efficient ways.

In fact UNESCO is catching on. At the last meeting on endangered languages in March 2011 in Paris, we discussed how the Internet has great potential in influencing the sustainability of languages and considered ways to encourage and support the use of new technologies in general on behalf of mother tongues.

You have worked with minority languages in Latin America. What is the legal status of those languages today?

There have been astonishing changes in the status of minority languages on that continent in the last twenty years. Today practically all Latin American countries have declared themselves multiethnic and multilingual and have granted linguistic rights including bilingual education to all their languages. The difficulty now is how to implement them.  Most countries have turned into vast laboratories of work on these indigenous languages today. See for instance the case of Colombia, and the work of linguist Jon Landaburu for the recognition and promotion of the languages of that country, for which he just won the Linguapax Award 2012. Today, in countries like Mexico, or Guatemala or Ecuador, more and more linguists and educators are native speakers, and are busy giving new life and prestige to their languages through new forms of education.



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