March 15, 2015
At the Winter Talk conference in Tulsa in few weeks ago, I found myself listening to Dr. Richard Grounds, founder of the Euchee Language Project. He spoke about how the Doctrine of Discovery encouraged the loss of indigenous languages. This loss, he noted, is more than the loss of words and phrases, it is the loss of culture and ways of being. Furthermore, because the loss of language (and in turn culture) in the America’s is intentional (and historically supported) by non-indigenous governments, it is one of many cogs in a wheel of indigenous genocide. A point of Grounds is language is more than words; it is the way a people think and live.
When I heard language is the way a people think, I wandered from Grounds talk for a moment. The wandering took me to a time when a Spanish instructor of mine said, “you’re getting a handle on the language the moment you quit translating (in your head) from English to Spanish.” Because languages do not translate word for word, idea for idea, exactly, then Dr. Grounds comment about language being the way a people think has me thinking language is an important consideration for those who engage in the work of anti-racism and the dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery (DOD).
The way a people think holds great implications for US people. Let’s say a Spanish speaker is learning US English (Fair to accept US English is unlike English spoken elsewhere in the world?). The speaker is middle-age and has spent their life speaking only Spanish. They have always expressed their thoughts, values, morals through the Spanish language. Slowly s/he learns words, phrases, and moves to paragraphs and basic conversation. A day comes when they speak English without mentally translating their thoughts. At that moment, they begin to think with the values and morals of the English language. Being US English, values, that are rooted in the soil of colonization become their own. However, because they are a bi-lingual speaker, there is not a full assimilation of their thought process, but they have a good chunk. The next generations though have a different story. For the day a generation is raised without the language of their parents (grandparents) and are English only speakers, they can only process values and morals through the dominate US English language. As an English only speaker, the colonization values of US English are now their own. Should this go on for a generation or two, the values of the original language are lost and a way of thinking and living ends.
Under this construct, we can better understand why anti-racism and DOD repudiation work is so hard for US teachers and learners, people of color and white people, and Natives and non-Natives. For each of them—even though they know the evil of racism and intentionally work toward dismantling institutional racism—have only the US English language, naturally laced with colonization virtues, through which to process their thoughts and arguments. Therefore, it is important for anti-racism and DOD trainers to know the underpinning of their language works directly against the justice in which they engage. Bi-lingual folk on the other hand, have a step up on English only speakers. Being able to process their thoughts through a second language whose underpinning may not (many other languages also have DOD values embedded) so directly labor against their ideas, thoughts, philosophy, and theology, allows for alternative considerations.
If this is the case, then single language folk, whose work is dismantling the DOD and racism, must begin learning another language. More so, this case argues for barring laws, legislation that argue in favor of English only in texts, schools, workplaces, and churches. More so, it calls for generational work that moves the Americas to a bi-lingual landscape.
Should one buy the above argument, I would then argue economics should not be the litmus test for choosing the languages of our children. In other words, languages such as Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic should not be chosen because they lead to high wages, but because they are the language of heritage. To have a landscape of fluent heritage speakers, Diné, Gaelic, Sahaptin, German, Athabaskan, Scots, Sioux, Polish, in addition to those already mentioned, enriches society due to the diversity of languages and the multiple ways of processing thoughts and ideas. Even better, the speaker benefits, for having renewed their heritage language, they enter into a richness of self that comes with reconnecting forgotten ancestral relationships. If languages are the way a people think, then becoming a bi-language people leads to greater creativity, better understanding of neighbor, and richer thinking.