It is pretty obvious that wars and conflicts would never occur in a world with a single language of understanding. If we look at populations throughout history, common origins of conflict rose in multilingualism as a necessary condition. Based on historical data of states and frontiers, this paper supports how multilingualism creates national conflict, impedes economic growth and stunts national unity.
In a country, the greatest discord and difficulties encountered often arises from nation and states that develop their own national tongue. Neighbouring nations have gone to war throughout history over disagreements that could have been conveniently meted out had they reached a common ground. The inability to understand one another through differing interpretations of actions and words superimposed the layers of antagonism and distrust. History has supported that the existence of different language served to create a barrier for sound understanding between nations. When parties with existing discord cannot verbally see one another eye to eye, thoughts and actions are left to common interpretation which can often create a complex meaning. Oftentimes, language problems set the stage for escalated conflict within a multi-lingual nation. Biblical images threw at us Babel’s history as “babbles of language divided and scattered men all over the world” (Calvet, 1998:18). True to form, the bible even relates how language confusion draws out separation among men who initially understood one another over one common dialect. Social dispersion followed as multilingualism became a handicap and a reason for dispersion.
Language Conflicts throughout History
In lands fraught with conflicts, ethnic groups in Africa escalate tension and resentment through differing opinions and uncertain interpretation of language contacts. African conflicts arise “when population groups of differing socio-economic structures clash after integration with the rest of the population” (Nelde, 1997:286). Intense conflicts have ended in violence given the fact that contact between ethnic groups defined inadequate comprehension of one another’s interests. Conflicts have also frequently arisen across Europe as linguistic minorities “fail to assimilate the official or regional languages” (Paulston and Peckham, 1998:82). Early 20th century riots in Greece have been attributed to petty problems over the “translation of the New Testament” that led to riots in Athens in 1901 (New York Times, 1901:8). Variations of the German language also served to fragment and create cleavages “between German speakers and both French and Italian speakers” (Rash, p.118). Historical facts relate how tense situations rupture to a deafening crescendo of violence which traditionally occurs when language problems arise.
A Multilingual Nation’s Growing Problem
With a growing immigration problem, our country faces “a concomitant increase in the number of people speaking their native language other than English”. Half of these foreign immigrants are native language speakers and viewed by others as “a barrier to community cohesion” (Putnam, 2003: Chap.3). With increasing diversity, society faces “additional pressure and cost” to maintain literacy not to mention expenditures for interpretation and translation (Nieto, 2002: 80). Changing the educational curriculum to cater to a multicultural population have been seen by many as an answer, “but the cost is quite complex even in a neo-liberal nation” such as the US (Pavlenko, 2006:39). Given the sheer magnitude of problems like an increasing scarcity of resources and economic anxieties; “language shift brings about obvious problems in every other institution in the country” (Hutchinson and Smith, 2000: 10). The health care industry for one has seen “how language barriers and cultural differences affect the delivery of care” (Albrecht et al, 2000:198). Misunderstanding often ensues between patients and health workers that often impede people’s access to health services.
Many immigrants, who arrive, try to impose their foreign culture and “face societal problems due to their limited use of the nation’s common language” ((Hutchinson and Smith, 2000: 10). Even within their own ethnic group, “they encounter handicaps as inferior varieties of their language mark their status” (Wright, 1996:39). These problems coupled with limited powers within English-speaking society and “unwilling (ness) to integrate into the local culture” develop feelings of inferiority (Gonzales and Miles, 2000: 122). With divergent attitudes, such sentiments can easily shift allegiances and create conflict brought about by linguistic and cultural differences. Canada was once wracked with “violent activities that worked for the separation of Quebec from Canada” as English and French speaking people became divided by language, religion and economic capabilities (Clift and Arnopoulos, 1984:212).The aborigines of Canada perceived their subordinate status to the rest of the population that soon aroused conflicts. The same ethnic “heterogeneity in Former Yugoslavia” (Akhavan and Howse, 1995:112) intensified as rising differences “endorsed a national euphoria resulting to violent conflicts for territorial control of resources” (Fishman, 1999:62). Eventually, relations subside when “larger conflicts existing between ethno linguistic groups over their relative positions in the political community” sought in the end to disintegrate a nation (Ricento and Burnaby, 1998:39).
Conflict Resolution in the face of Diversity
Although conflicts “depend on the level of friction and prejudices between groups” there is definitely a possibility of attaining a more peaceful form of coexistence (Nelde, 2004). Tollefson believed that many multi-lingual countries involved in the process of conflict can “promote stability by promoting a standardization of languages” (Tollefson, 2002:180). Democratic nations made up of different cultures experience fragmentation as endless bickering ensue. In America, “institutionalizing multilingualism can work with language planning as minority populations learn to communicate in English” as a standard national language while maintaining their native tongue within their own group (Kincheloe and Steinberg, 1998:160). Although not necessarily sufficient in avoiding conflicts; bilateral communications under a common language “can help soften repercussions of socio-economic, cultural and linguistic lives of multi-lingual groups” (Coulmas, 1991:69). Relations greatly improve when groups are less stigmatized by bilateral communication under one common language. Additionally, people adapting to a different ideological position can seek to deal with opposition far better with one common language of communication.
National unity and a Common Language
The process of adopting a common language is not to endorse a “politically-correct language” or to encourage assimilation of all minority groups “to an elite norm” but rather to encourage everyone to espouse a philosophy of common understanding (Cameron, 1995:160). In a nation where economics set the rule for states to function, the workplace should have one common language understood by everyone in order for economic activity to prosper (Wright, 1996:29). China suggested that in order to safeguard a nation’s unity “people need to exist under a solid and unified group to boost national development” (People’s Daily, 2000). This rule of law is therefore understood as a tangent multicultural policy that “does not stress language differences but rather promote group interaction” in the interest of unity and economic stability (Wright, 1996:39). The absence of a common language on the basis of a common form of communication is a threat to social cohesion and does not serve to promote national economic stability. National unity can therefore be achieved when “newcomers negotiate the embodiments of the cultural practice of the host society” (Middlemiss, p.11).
Incorporating a new form of language promotes bilingualism and inter-lingualism. The fact that many foreign languages like Spanish vary from one another even within their native tongues spells disintegration. If America needs to see through its present economic and social struggles, “the entire nation needs a common language with a literature based upon it as an indispensable solution” (Hutchinson and Smith, 2000: 10). National sentiment can only be shared by everyone with mixed races under one common language of understanding. As everyone learns to communicate their ideas and sentiments, a common ground can be established for national destiny equally beneficial to everyone. Although ethnic solidarity does not make a nation, ethnic disparities serve to crush economic and political structures in a variety of ways. The cost of training on language reform in the academe impedes national funds in the event of allowing multiple languages to take shape. Implications for disruption is entertained in the social nature of communication process as people of mixed races strive to understand one another. Immigrants, as non-natives to a host nation should therefore learn to assimilate in common areas that promote economic wellness. This is an unmistakeable adaptation to life in a new land that is highly significant in a threshold of economic and social upheavals. While minority groups, visiting or permanent have the power to destroy the stability of a country, it is therefore imperative that such groups limit their own use of their native tongue and adopt to a language common to all.
Important to National Unity: Legislators. People’s Daily Online. Retrieved Dec 6, 2007, from: http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/english/200007/05/eng20000705_44779.html
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