Linguistics and the Human Sciences, Vol 11, No 1 (2015)

The (mis)uses of essentialism in a language policy-making context

Ruanni Tupas
Issued Date: 26 May 2016

Abstract


In recent years, it has been much more common to ground sociolinguistic studies in concepts of language practices, language crossings and communicative repertoires, owing to the field’s growing recognition of the complexity and dynamism of language use. However, in language policy-making in many parts of the world, where language and education specialists are directly involved in language and education policy-making, linguistic essentialism is prevalent but sometimes a necessary component of struggles for the official recognition of marginalized languages and communities. Linguistic essentialism mainly refers to the belief that languages are separate, idealized entities, and that they represent identities and cultures which do not intersect and remain unchanging. Yet, many deployments of linguistic essentialism have led to reconfigured systems of education which have, in many contexts, resulted in more democratic and more equitable learning spaces. How can/should we respond to such kind of essentialism? These could be strategic uses of essentialism because of their deployment as provisional necessary conceptual tools for specific political projects (Spivak, 1988). However, an examination of these essentialisms shows their unchanging nature or their lack of critical self-reflection, thus failing to account for changing sociolinguistic and socio-political realities. In the Philippines, linguistic essentialisms helped institutionalize the national language, Filipino, as a medium of instruction by discursively promoting it as the language of nationalism, cultural expression and identity, and anti-colonial struggle. In the process, these discourses undermined the hegemony of English as the sole language of instruction in the country, thus resulting in the promulgation of the bilingual education policy in 1974. At the same time, however, the same discourses marginalized the role of the country’s more than a hundred mother tongues as languages of instruction, nationalism, cultural expression and identity and political struggle. Linguistic essentialisms are part and parcel of language policy-making and should be viewed and appraised in the light of historically contingent political projects that deployed them. However, they must continuously change to remain relevant, self-critically nuancing their own positions and always open to reconfigurations of languages in society.

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DOI: 10.1558/lhs.v11i1.20480

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