They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Uses and abuses in the name of the language

Uses and abuses in the name of the language

By Sara Plaza

"It is badly expressed", "you cannot say it that way", "this is not Castilian"... these are a few ways in which a good number of teachers sanction (for it does not seem to me that this is the way in which someone "corrects" anything) the manner through which their students make questions, give answers, try to explain themselves, intend to tell something, give examples, make any comments... I listened to them when I was a child, while I went to primary school in my little village; I repeated them when I was in my teens in order to criticize the spoken language of my parents; I suffered them when I was a young woman in my twenties and, being with some friends of mine who have grown up in the city, they laughed at my "vulgar", "from the country" way of speaking.

Because no matter how much my elementary and high schools teachers did penalized the linguistic marks that featured the spoken language of my community, my family and myself, I have never been able to get rid of them completely and, in many moments of my daily life, when I am in a relaxed atmosphere and take part in casual conversations, they are part of my way of saying, telling, thinking, interpreting... Precisely because of this, for they are the marks where on I first rested in order to communicate with my parents, with my grandparents, with my schoolmates, and with the shopkeepers of my village.

If I do not concern myself about it, I mean, if I am not much aware of this fact, those marks slip through my formal writing, my explanations, my most elaborated opinions. So, I spend most of the time with a dictionary in my hands and I always doubt about the correct form of saying this or that... This makes me feel a bit sad and quite disappointed, much to my regret: not because I have to use the dictionary all the time, that is a very good exercise, but considering what makes me I feel much sorry: the fact that through the education I received in the classroom I only learnt that some of the things that I said (and the way I said them) were right and some others were definitely wrong. In the class, neither there was space, time or opportunity to find anything out about the different linguistic varieties that exist of any language, nor to understand that all of them are valid, valuable and necessary, and that its true extent of rightness will depend on the moment and the situation; on what we are trying to say and whom we are talking to; on the circumstances, on the purpose... We can continue and make this list longer, however, the idea is always the same: there is not one unique, right and true manner of speaking in our language, but a wonderful diversity of different ways of communication through it.

Concerning my own linguistic marks, and the good number of smiles that they are drawn on my interlocutors' face through the years, I must make it clear that the pass of the time has smoothed the bitterness of the sort of grimace that I discovered in the lips of my urban friends when I was younger, and has let my eyes find others much more beautiful in Edgardo's mouth. Now, it is wonderful to see his sheer joy in the curve of his lips, when I let slip a saying of my land, and I should admit with absolute delight, that I have also come across very funny smiles on many elders' faces, who recognize in my marks the linguistic variety of that Castilla (Castile) named "la Vieja" (the old)... Undoubtedly, it has been the joyfulness of all of them what has allowed me to value my identity (and not only the linguistic one), what has made me turn my face and look back with a lot of tender love, and even with certain pride, to the place where I was born and to my childhood in a rural area.

In addition, as time has passed, I have been more and more conscious that the goings and comings between my village and the city during my teens and my twenties, allow me now to move freely from one place to another and to "get on" quite well with both contexts. Fortunately, in the last few years, I have increased this ability to establish a constructive dialogue between different (sometimes even opposite) realities thanks to having lived in more than one country. I know how lucky I am of having let my eyes become able to see different sunrises; of having listening to the grass rustling under my feet, sometimes making an army of crickets fell silent, and awaking a handful of toads bigger than my hand others; of having turn my palms red after clapping in delight to show how much I had enjoyed the music of those many instruments that I was not able to name when I first met them...

It is not strange that being far away –and I do not only refer to the amount of space between two places– we understand better the value of what had been close to us up to that moment. Sooner than later, the life is in charge of making us know about this fact. However, I believe that it is a shame that school does not teach it to us much earlier. I consider that it is highly regrettable that such institution continues to deny –still on too many occasions– our identity and keeps on sanctioning our way of speaking, penalizing those linguistic marks that distance any variety of a language from the standard. .

I thought about all these things a few days ago, while I was reading "Hacia una educación intercultural en el aula" [1] (Towards an intercultural education in the classroom) publisthed by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology of Argentina. On several occasions I turned back the page I read the lines written in the chapter number four by a teacher named María Mercedes Sosa. I would like to finish with her thoughts, since I have found in them all that I would have been delighted to discover a long, long time ago...

... It is true that school is the place where the teaching of the standard language should take place, since its knowledge will allow students to become involved in situations that may require formality. Nevertheless, to attain this goal does not mean to consider unworthy or devaluate the dialect of our children; to intend to achieve this aim does nothing to do with "erase" from the child the linguistic marks that feature his/her place of origin: of birth, of age, of social class, of sense of belonging.

To reject their variety, is the same as rejecting their identity. The mother tongue, the language that the child first heard from his/her parents, from his/her grandparents, from his/her elder brothers and sisters, from his/her community, is used as a communication and emotion tool. Through it, the child learnt to build his/her world. The word "mother" linked him/her to the world; the popular song, the prayers, the chants, the stories, the jokes, the silences, made him/her gradually become a human being and connected him/her with the community.

Then, what should we do? Basically we have to show respect for our children and for ourselves, assume that teachers also have a social and cultural background and, because of it, we have linguistic marks as well. [...]

Teaching language is not the same as teaching how to speak; the child already knows how to do it when s/he arrives at the school. Teaching language is not the same as giving mechanical and functional rules; teaching language is to contribute towards the language development, to help creativity; is to make available to the child all the possibilities that the language offers in order to communicate with each other in different situations.

Teaching language should not show a red card all the time: if we do this, nobody will want to play –in this case to express him/herself– for fear of being wrong.

[1] Lasala, M. y Sosa, M. M. "Hacia una educación intercultural en el aula". Buenos Aires: Ministerio de Educación, Ciencia y Tecnología, 2006.