Friday, August 20, 2004

D'oh! Woohoo! D'oh!



Goh Sui Noi, "Modernisation a threat to dialects in China; Local dialects are disappearing as greater mobility and interaction give rise to the need for a common tongue", The Straits Times, 2004 August 18.

'The modernisation process is a main reason for the decline of dialects,' said assistant professor Jing Wendong of the Central University for Nationalities.

The popularisation of putonghua - the national language based on the Beijing dialect - only quickened the pace of decline, he added.

In the past, China was an agrarian society where its people lead sedentary lives in villages and towns separated by mountains.

As China modernised and moved towards a market economy, there was greater mobility and more interaction between different communities, giving rise to the need for a common tongue.
'In the cities, people congregate from all regions and for these people to communicate, they need a common language, which is putonghua,' noted Professor Qian Nairong, a linguistics expert.
Prof Qian placed part of the blame for the decline of dialects on measures to restrict its use in newspapers and on television.

Others have pointed out that as young people gained fluency in putonghua, it has affected the usage of dialects.
Overall, the number of dialect-speakers is declining.

Language experts lament a loss of plurality in the Chinese culture with the decline in the use of dialects.

'Behind each dialect is the culture of a particular area, and local cultures are very rich,' said Prof Qian.

He suggested that dialects be accorded equal status as putonghua and be allowed to develop naturally.

Goh Sui Noi, "No need for mother tongue", The Straits Times, 2004 August 18.

Ms Qin Zhongxia, 34, is more worried about her 12-year-old son's progress in English lessons than whether he can speak his mother tongue.

A migrant worker from Anhui province, she speaks the dialect of their Gangbao village with her husband, but putonghua with her son Li Liming.

'If you ask me, I'd rather he speaks putonghua well, then English, and then our dialect,' she said.

Many migrant workers share her views. 'I don't wish for him to stay in the village, there is no future there,' Ms Qin added. And if he was not going back to the village, it did not matter if he could not speak his dialect well.
Kent Davis-Packard, "At last, an ancient tongue will be taught", The Christian Science Monitor, 2004 August 17.

The letter "yaz," shaped like a joyful human being, is the symbol of the Imazighen people. It's one of the 39 letters of Tifinagh, the ancient language all children in Morocco will be required to learn - in addition to classical Arabic and French - by 2008.

"It's our maternal language," says Amina Ibnou-Cheikh Raha, director of Le Monde Amazigh, a newspaper dedicated to Imazighen, or Berber, cultural issues. "It's the first language that existed here in Morocco. What's abnormal is that it has never been taught."

Berbers - the name given to the Imazighen people because they were viewed as "barbarians" who at first did not accept Islam - have inhabited North Africa since 7,000 BC. Their ranks have included St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, and they have managed to preserve their languages despite French, Roman, and Arab conquests. [You missed the Phoenicians/Carthaginians, Kent.]

"Thanks to our mothers, and our grandmothers, 'Tamazight' [the term used to designate all Imazighen languages] is still alive," says Lahcen Ouberka, a high school teacher in Marakech.

Tamazight speakers constitute 40 percent of Morocco's population, 20 percent of Algeria's, and 1 percent of Tunisia's. This year, Morocco's Ministry of Education and the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) have introduced the 9,000-year-old language into some 300 primary schools throughout Morocco for the first time.

"It's very important to learn so we can speak with our brothers in the north and in the south," says first-grader Zineb Sakale excitedly.
Some Moroccan educators also hope the use of the language in schools will lower the Imazighen dropout rate.

"Many Imazighen students do not follow the educational system and they do not succeed, and this is in part because they don't study in their own language," says Fatima Agnaou, a researcher at IRCAM.

In 1967, Moroccan university students had formed the first Imazighen association in North Africa, the Moroccan Association of Research and Cultural Exchange. In the years since, new associations have continued to spring up, demanding the teaching of Tamazight in Moroccan schools.

Finally, in 1994, the late King Hassan II announced the introduction of Tamazight in Moroccan primary schools, but no move was made by the Ministry of Education until 2000.

Some worry that the initiative will stumble due to a government decision to begin teaching Tamazight in three separate dialogues, phasing in standardized Tamazight over the course of a decade. It's a decision some critics suggest was influenced by government fears of too much Imazighen unity.

There are, of course, countries that comfortably mix languages in their public school systems.

"In Switzerland, there are four official languages recognized by the state," says Khaji Mounia, director of the Tarik Ibn Zyad Cultural Center. "There are not ethnic ruptures in Switzerland. They are taught these languages from primary school up through university, and society lives in harmony."

But there are also places where the teaching of indigenous languages is a point of contention. In neighboring Algeria, for instance, the Imazighen were harshly repressed after independence from France. It was even illegal for a child to be given a Imazighen name, and such cultural repression sparked violent reactions.

The King of Morocco, whose mother happens to be a Berber, is cautiously pursuing a politic of incorporation. "I don't think we will have the same kinds of problems that Algeria went through," says civil activist Jamila Hassoune. Use of Tifinagh, she insists, is "a cultural richness that, instead of dividing Morocco, unifies it."
Regular reader(s) (Hey, Laban!) will know that I have reservations about the second part of the article on Tifinagh. I'm extremely pleased that an Islamic country has made it official public policy to teach its children to cherish their pre-Islamic heritage from a very young age, you know, instead of denouncing any pre-Islamic cultural identity as jahil, the vernacular Arabic for pre-Islamic, literally "ignorant", and trying to wipe it out. And I take more than a little ironic pleasure at the notion of an Islamic country implementing what looks suspiciously like a multiculturalist educational philosophy.

However, given the experience of Western schools with Afrocentrism and similar approaches in American schools for Hispanic students, Moroccan educators who hope that the use of Tifinagh will lower the Imazighen dropout rate are likely to be disappointed.

As for the assertion that the use of Tifinagh will unify Morocco instead of dividing it, well, the results of the similar policies in the West, the same ones I mentioned before, suggest precisely the opposite. If anything, the use of Tifinagh will further entrench and deepen the divisions between Imazighen and Arab.

The suggestion that the slow phase-in of Tamazight into schools is due to concerns about Imazighen unity implies that the government is aware (and afraid) of precisely that possibility. I'm surprised to find myself a little relieved that the government's enthusiasm for teaching Tifinagh is not unbridled. That suggests that the government is being more realistic than those educators who expect Imazighen dropout rates to fall or that civil activist who insists that the effect will be centripetal rather than centrifugal. Were it not, Tifinagh education's likely failure (in the case of reducing dropout rates) and outright counterproductivity (in the case of Moroccan unity) might cause a backlash on the celebration of pre-Islamic heritage not just in Morocco, but across the Islamic world.

I believe that the war on terror cannot be won without a sea change in how the global Muslim mainstream sees non-Muslim peoples and cultures. Teaching Muslim children to celebrate their pre-Islamic heritage is a step in that direction.