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Linguistic and cultural imperialism


Laforest's death in 1915 acquired a new meaning when recounted in 1985, at a time when linguistic rights were starting to be viewed as basic human rights. The case for linguistic rights has been made particularly strongly with regard to the hegemonic spread of English around the world. Beyond the symbolic link frequently established between language and territorial or cultural identity, there is also another link that has more to do with the promulgation of global ideologies through the worldwide expansion of one language, also called linguicism. Linguicism has been defined as 'ideologies, structures, and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources (both material and unmaterial) between groups which are defined on the basis of language', as Phillipson says in his book Linguistic Imperialism (Oxford University Press 1992, page 47), in which English linguistic imperialism is seen as a type of linguicism.

From our discussion so far, one can see where the self-ascription to a given group on the basis of language might be the response to rather than the cause of the lack of material and spiritual power. It is when people feel economically and ideologically disempowered that language may become an issue and a major symbol of cultural integrity. However, as we saw in Chapters 2, and 3, in a world of signs where every meaning can proliferate ad infinitum, it becomes very difficult to distinguish what is the effect and what is the cause of linguistic imperialism. The spread of English is undeniable, and it is viewed by those who suffer from it as a totem for a certain Anglo-American 'culture' or way of life, but it is not clear whether the appropriate response in the long run is to make English and other languages into cultural icons, or to rely on the remarkable ability that speakers have to create multiple cultural realities in any language.

This is not to say that linguistic pluralism is not a desirable good in itself. The Babel threat is not the splintering off in mutually unintelligible languages, but the monopoly of one language over others. As in Babel's days, the complacent belief that people are working for a common cause just because they speak a common language is a dangerous illusion. Being human means working through the shoals of mutual misunderstandings across incommensurable languages. That is why linguistic rights, like anti-trust laws, have to be upheld, not because of the one-to-one relation-ship between culture and language, but because each language provides a uniquely communal, and uniquely individual, means by which human beings apprehend the world and one another.




Although there is no one-to-one relationship between anyone's language and his or her cultural identity, language is the most sensitive indicator of the relationship between an individual and a given social group. Any harmony or disharmony between the two is registered on this most sensitive of the Richter scales. Language is an integral part of ourselves - it permeates our very thinking and way of viewing the world. It is also the arena where political and cultural allegiances and loyalties are fought out. However, if language indexes our relation to the world, it is not itself this relation.

Because of the inevitable and necessary indeterminacy of signs, the same use of a given language can index both indenture and investment, both servitude and emancipation, both powerlessness and empowerment. Paradoxically, the only way to preserve the room for maneuver vital to any human communication is not by making sure that everyone speaks the same language, but by making sure that the linguistic semiotic capital of humankind remains as rich and as diversified as possible.



Current issues


The relationship of language and culture in language study is one of the most hotly debated issues at the present time. Because language is closely related to the way we think, and to the way we behave and influence the behavior of others, the notion that our sense of social reality may be but a construction of language or 'language game', is disturbing. The notion that a person's social and cultural identity may not be the immutable monolithic entity it is usually taken for, but a kaleidoscope of various presentations and representations of self through language, is unsettling. These uncertainties explain in part the current debates surrounding the role of the native speaker, the concept of cultural authenticity, the notions of cross-, inter-, and multicultural communication and what has become known as the politics of recognition (see page 124).


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