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Does language unite or divide multicultural societies?

Written By: daveski on November 29, 2008 1 Comment

This is the question that Madeleine Blunting of the UK’s Guardian poses to her readers in her controversial article (102 comments and counting), pointed out to me by a Facebook friend: “A telling reminder of our enduring captivity to myth“.

The article describes the British Museum‘s current exhibition, “Babylon: Myth and Reality”, and argues that museum director Neil MacGregor has used it as a means to call into question the deep anxieties that its British and international viewers have about their own multicultural, multilingual presents and pasts. What lessons are to be learned from this 2000+ year old capital city that gave history The Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens, Belshazzar’s Feast and the Fall of Babylon…and more recently, as Blunting points out, media coverage of U.S. soldiers destroying relics of the past? How are the centripetal and centrifugal forces of social unity and heterogeneity reconciled in modern-day cities like London, where advertising campaigns against the translation of public service materials are being waged, and where test-takers’ language and beliefs are increasingly held as preconditions to citizenship, as in the “Life in the UK test“?

When arguing for the benefits and, indeed, naturalness of societal multilingualism in particular, it’s not the overtly bigoted statements against other languages and other cultures that I find hardest to contend with (although in the aftermath of Prop. 8 in California, we can see we still have a very long way to go); rather, it’s the more subtle arguments that pit multiple languages against each other, making multilingualism seem like an either-or proposition instead of something makes us more than we could otherwise be. One example I found in response to Blunting’s article was the comment by user gunnulf, who remarks, “If you live in a country where you speak the language, can understand the laws, the tax forms and your neighbours then the chances are the benefits of this far outweigh the colour and culture of being able to utter words in another way in my opinion.”

Many language educators I know are taking solace in Barack Obama’s presidential victory–won’t America’s racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences enter into a new age of recognition, healing, dialog, and growth, at least to some degree? And yet, with K-12 bilingual education still outlawed in California after the passage of Prop 227 ten years ago, with opportunities to study language at home and abroad in California colleges and universities disappearing under shrinking state budgets, and in a climate in which basic civil rights are still being stripped away from whole segments of our population, where do we go from here? Will the many languages of the public sphere continue to bear the undue symbolic burden of representing the ‘divisive now’, or quaint and distant pasts, rather than building blocks to the future?

What lessons do we have to learn from London and the dozens of other ‘multilingual metropolises’ about finding unity and purpose in diversity without allowing it to be co-opted for the many projects of myth-making? Or is myth the only thing that can bring us together?

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One Response to “Does language unite or divide multicultural societies?”

  1. british citizenship test on: 9 October 2009 at 2:15 pm

    This is a very inteligent and complicated topic. I would like to think that language adds to the diversity of cultures rather than dividing or isolating communities. The reality is very much different. In terms of the life in the UK test, language is being used as part of the entry requirements despite other qualities or skills that person might have.

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