Bilingual Education/Coercive Power and Language

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In the early 1930s, Albert Einstein was chosen by the League of Nations to keep correspondence with different scholars and intellectuals around the world about social matters that he could consider interesting to analyze. In 1932, he sent a letter to Sigmund Freud regarding war, its nature and the reasons for its existence. The following is a summary of some of Freud’s perspectives in his response to Einstein when attempting to explain why war.

Freud (1932) states that, “conflicts of interest among men are settled primarily through violence”, (translation mine n.p) where the need to exercise power goes hand in hand with the need of survival. At the beginning of human evolution, it was physical strength the means by which some overpowered the others; an instinctual urge for survival not far from that of any other animal species. Physical strength was, on the course of many years, substituted by the use of tools and weapons. Whoever had the best tools and knew the best ways to use the weapons was the strongest and therefore, the one in control of the group.

One of the most interesting features of the use of weapons and tools was the development of thought and language, and so, mental superiority surmounted muscle power. Thus, whoever had the best ideas, or could convince others by means of language was the one who could exercise control over them. However, even though the means to access power and superiority changed, the purpose of doing it remained the same, as Freud (1932) explains, “… the ultimate purpose of struggle continued to be the same: one part (of the conflict), because of the damage inflicted upon them, or because of the neutralization of its forces, will be constrained to decline its claim or antagonism” (translation mine, n.p). Thus, one can begin to understand, how, even by means other than physical violence, thought and language have been used since their development as weapons of destruction; a symbolic destruction, but destruction nonetheless.

The first section of this paper will show how the need of humans to exercise coercive power on others has continued to be at the core of human relations evidenced through the development of the concept of minority language and the implications of laws that prohibit the use of language. The last section will discuss the idea of bilingual education as a way to introduce a social change in the way we humans relate to one another.

Historical Development of the concept of Bilingualism[edit]

At this point, and for the purpose of this paper, it is important to move from Freud’s perspective and start tracing back the beginning of concepts such as multilingualism and language minority groups. It seems interesting that the concept of linguistic minorities did not exist before the 19th century. Early on, in medieval times when the feudal system was set in Europe, most of the people were stagnant peasants and farmers who did not move about and who spoke dialects that derived from “the great European language continua: Romance, Germanic, Celtic, Slavic and Baltic” (Wright, 2001, p. 44). Therefore, it would have been possible for people to understand each other no matter their dialect because, as Wright (2001) points out, adjacent dialects from the same linguistic root were comprehensible to one another. (p.44).

For the ruling class in medieval context, multilingualism was a common consequence of marriages arranged for economical and political reasons; yet, “the concept of linguistic minority had little meaning. There was not a vast majority to define a minority.” (Wright, 2001, p. 45). When the feudal system declined, dynasties made efforts to set the limits to their territories, thus, creating the idea of nations; different treaties introduced the idea of religious homogeneity within newly created nations, and dynasties began to be aware of the variety of languages of their subjects. It was at this point that the concept of language of power began to develop. The ruling class of each territory began to spread their own language to maintain cohesion among their territories, hence, promoting their own linguistic variety as prestigious. One of the factors that supported this political move of the ruling classes was the translation of the Bible. Each government had the Bible translated into their own language thus, supporting the standardization of a national language.

Wright (2001) explains that during those times, the emerging idea of nation could be viewed on two different perspectives: civic and ethnic. The civic perspective deals with the expansion of dynasties into new territories, hence, strengthening the boundaries of the states; the ethnic perspective refers to movement in which “leaders of a cultural and linguistic group aimed to provide the group with territory within which they would be the sole and dominant group” (p.46). It is not difficult to assume that in order to be the “sole and dominant group” these leaders would have to override other cultural and linguistic expressions if not by means of violence, then, by legal means, passing laws that could prohibit the practices of other languages.

Still, the concept of minority language did not develop until the 20th century, when massive migration of refugees after the wars, and groups seeking economical benefits in other countries, gave as a result, mixed populations within the nations. These groups of immigrants shook up each nation’s identity and cohesion. At a time of strong nationalist feelings, having groups of citizens with different languages and cultural backgrounds was viewed by the dominant nations as a problem to deal with if national cohesion was to be preserved.

Two different approaches to dealing with this matter emerged: The inclusive approach by which minority groups were assimilated into the nation to help them become part of the nations social and political life, -one can assume this meant that immigrants had to forget their language and their culture to become as similar as possible to the majority- and the exclusive approach in which the minority groups were kept separated and were rejected altogether. As Wright (2001) states,” this was always a manifestation of the defeat and domination of one group by another, and linguistic repression was only one of many repressions” (p. 47). This clearly exemplifies the way in which a culture / language can be vanished: denial and rejection (though peaceful and perhaps thoughtful in the way they are presented) are, once again, key to the understanding of how by means of legal arguments humans continue to kill one another.

Language and Human Rights[edit]

In contemporary societies, there continues to be a belief that nations may crumble unless a single language is promoted and preserved. That is one of the reasons why laws and acts continue to be approved around the world that favor national identity but are in detriment of cultural and linguistic diversity, and as I will try to show in the following section, against human rights.

The other reasons continue to be current even though many centuries have passed. Bruce Mannheim (1991) Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan, and author of The language of the Inka since the European invasion (cited by Garcia, 2005) notes these beliefs when speaking about the imposition of Spanish colonists upon indigenous cultures: a) speaking the same language forges bonds among speakers (which, as it has been explained , continues to be a valid reason in many societies); b) a language can be imposed on a defeated population by the right of conquest (or, as one would say from Freud’s perspective, by causing damage to the opponent but leaving them alive for personal use and benefit) and c) language preserves cultural identity (pg 16).

The last one gives me a starting point by which to introduce the last section of this paper. When one understands this assertion as true, then the opposite is also evident. When a language is prohibited, a culture is prohibited. When a language is considered a nuisance and an obstacle, then, a culture is put in a position of disadvantage, and given a second-rate status. When a language vanishes, a culture falls into oblivion and is lost forever to human kind. The relationship between coercive power and language from a psychoanalytical perspective becomes clear. Overpowering the opponent through physical force is no different than overpowering him/her through mental processes such as thought and language. Coercive relations, in which power is exercised on the people, have been the norm rather than the exception throughout history and the need for power and control of one group over another should constitute a violation of their right to exist even if it could be possible that their physical integrity would not suffer damage.

Fernand de Varennes (2001), Doctor in law and Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Human Rights and the Prevention of Ethnic Conflicts at Murdoch University in Australia states “There is often the mistaken view that the rights of minorities or language rights are part of a new generation of rights, or are collective in nature” (p 16) . He believes this is an unfortunate stand because it fails to show that the exercise of these “special” rights (quotation mine) is nothing but the enumeration of the consequences of human rights in specific situations and contexts.

Passing laws to protect minority groups and their right to use what is already theirs is discriminatory, intolerant and overall disrespectful to the individual integrity of any group. Minority groups are groups of people, and as obvious as this statement might seem, the truth is, that they are considered less important and less dignified by societies. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) promotes equality, freedom and respect for all. For all. As Varennes (2001) points out, “what has been declared as language rights derives directly from basic, fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, nondiscrimination, the right to a private life and the rights of members of a linguistic group to use their own language with other members of their group” (p.16).

Pedagogical Implications[edit]

All of these considerations regarding coercive relations and language lead me towards the micro context of the classroom. Authors such as Cummins (2000b), advocate for Bilingual Education as a means to deviate from those coercive relations of power. What is it that teachers are transmitting to children regarding language and culture? The Universal Declaration of Human rights (1948), in its article No.26, paragraph 2 reads:

Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations,racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.[1]

It seems that more often than not, the entire Declaration is forgotten when it comes to education. Bilingual education should be the way to fulfill this utopy, but unfortunately there is still an enormous gap between what is written and what is transmitted by those in charged of education. Teachers of bilingual courses have in their hands the ways to transform the imaginaries of societies. Teachers have a responsibility that is greater than any academic standard that the systems require to achieve: it is a social responsibility. It comes from the power to shape minds within the classroom; it is a responsibility that affects the future of entire communities.

As Cummins (2000b) declares: “Coercive power relations can be expressed as effectively through two languages as through one” (pp.10-11). Teaching a second language does not in itself constitute a way toward tolerance and appreciation of diversity. Teaching the form of a language and perhaps some aspects of a culture such as food and holidays does not in itself provide elements for understanding and respecting the other. I find it imperative to understand that the other can always, at some point, be ourselves. Cummins (2000a) asserts that it is possible to see relationships in the classroom that reinforce and perpetuate societal patterns of compelling behavior (n.p.).

Cummins (2000a) presents the idea of Enriched Education which points in the direction of developing biliteracy; it has two main characteristics; one, it nurtures the development of both languages which rather than setting back the students cognitive development, it enhances it; and second, it supports the fact that abilities learned in one language can be transferred from one language to the other instead of blocking each other out.

It is not only a matter of adopting a pedagogical model. It is also a matter of educating and training teachers to follow a model as such with conviction and why not, altruism. In my years of practice I have seen wonderful pedagogical models that are distorted because the teachers either do not believe in them or are not trained enough for them, and so, the pedagogical philosophy behind the model is forgotten and replaced by the automatism of filling out forms to show that “something” is followed accurately.

It takes more than theory to break away from that innate drive to reject what is different and annihilate (really or symbolically) what can be perceived as a threat. It takes time, effort, patience, and most of all it takes for teachers to be able to remove psychical and emotional attachments to ideas and behavior that consciously or unconsciously, make us continue to transmit values that go in detriment of our own kind.


Cummins, J. (2000a).Biliteracy, Empowerment and Transformative Pedagogy in Tinajero, J.V & Devillar, R.A. (Eds.) The Power of Two Languages

Cummins, J. (2000b). Language Power and Pedagogy. Multilingual Matters

Freud, S. (1932). El Porque la Guerra.

Garcia, M.E (2005).Rethinking Bilingual Education in Peru: Intercultural Politics, State Policy and Indigenous Rights in Mejia, A.M. Bilingual Education in South America. Clevedon: Multilingual matters

Varennes, F. (2001). Language Rights as an Integral Part of Human Rights. International Journal on Multicultural Societies. Vol 3 No.1 pp.15-25

Wright, Sue (2001). Language and Power: Background to the Debate on Linguistic Rights. International Journal on Multicultural Societies. Vol 3 No.1 pp.44-54

25% developed  as of Dec 06, 2006 (Dec 06, 2006)