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Our mother tongues encode our identities

Many of us who speak and/or understand our mother tongues realize that our languages unlock many aspects of our identities and connect us to aspects of our histories, traditions and cultures.

As such, our mother tongues encode our identities in so many ways. Even as active, productive, patriotic citizens of a new country, while embracing wonderful new languages, cultures, traditions, celebrations and ways of life, we acknowledge that our mother tongues capture aspects of who we are and who we will always be intrinsically. 

There are many educators who are teaching children today or whom we encounter in our own studies, who would benefit from familiarizing themselves with knowledge about the role of mother tongues in the lives of their students and families.

A lack of such respect and understanding can potentially damage the identities of their students by stifling or denigrating mother tongues.

It requires an element of bravery to sit down with such educators  and explain that they may be making a mistake. Paulo Freire, the late, well-respected Brazilian writer, in his book, Pedagogy of freedom (1998) wrote, “There is no teaching without learning”.

He went on to say: The school, which is the space in which both teachers and students are the subjects of education, cannot abstract itself from the sociocultural and economic conditions of its students, their families, and their communities. It is impossible to talk of respect for students, for the dignity that is in the process of coming to be, for the identities that are in the process of construction, without taking into consideration the conditions in which they are living and the importance of the knowledge derived from life experience, which they bring with them to school. 

We as adults bring with us decades of life experiences and prior learning encoded in our mother tongues and first languages of instruction. We pass on this rich learning to our children. It is an ethical imperative for schools, especially those that are supported by our hard-earned tax dollars, to respect our identities and that includes a respect of our mother tongues.

Wade Davis, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, writes in his book Light At the Edge of the World: “The vast majority of the world’s languages have yet to be chronicled...Worldwide, perhaps as many as four thousand languages remain inadequately described. The cost of properly doing so has been estimated by linguists at $800 million, roughly the price of a single Aegis Class navy destroyer.

So for the price of one navy destroyer the world could chronicle and save four thousand languages; instead these indigenous languages are allowed to become extinct.

Perhaps politicians and policy makers need to hear from young people like this Grade 4 student in a Multiliteracies study to which I contributed (www.multiliteracies.ca):

“Being able to speak in my language is the most magical thing that can ever happen to you.”

Posted: Apr 30, 2017

August 2017



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