The Lasting Impact of Language Oppression

A complicated history of prohibiting native languages continues to plague the world today.


Anna Koontz

As some languages spread, many others disappear. According to a study done by National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a language dies every two weeks.

We are in the midst of a language pandemic. Linguistic diversity is rapidly declining, resulting in the loss of centuries of history, culture, and knowledge. This is the price of our modern, connected globe, yet it can not be addressed without reflecting on trends ingrained in history. Language has a dark past of oppression that reveals an abuse of culture and identity with lasting consequences. 

As the world sailed through the age of exploration, colonizers forcefully brought their own traditions and language with them. This unified their growing empires and established order and control, perpetuating dominance through diction. However, while standardizing culture united ethnically diverse colonies on the surface, there were harmful undertones. Denying the indigenous vernacular meant denying the identities of the indigenous, falsely broadcasting their inferiority and creating a future of persecution against them. 

The United States has not been innocent. From the early 1800s to well into the twentieth century, many Native American children were taken from their families and sent to English-only boarding schools aimed at assimilation. Kids were raised by strangers in this hostile setting and deprived of their own culture, heritage, and language. Meanwhile, representatives from America and Europe met for the 1880 Milan Conference and banned the use of sign language in deaf schools. Inadequate lip-reading and speech, known as oralism, was enforced instead. Out of the 164 delegates who decided the fate of deaf education, all were hearing except one. Both initiatives were conducted by people outside the affected communities, therefore ignorant to the detrimental impacts of forced conformity. 

Then came the first World War, amplifying fears of all things foreign. In an attempt to encourage patriotic pride and to prevent communication among enemy spies, Iowa governor William Harding banned the use of foreign languages in phone calls and all public settings. Harding argued that the constitutional freedom of speech applied solely to the national language. “Any inconvenience or sacrifice should willingly be made,” his 1918 Babel Proclamation states, “result[ing] in peace and tranquility.” Promoting one language would ideally preserve order and unity. Sound familiar?

Beyond the black and white of laws, languages were affected by social relations. In 1914, Hawaii’s first deaf school opened. Students were physically punished for signing, but Hawaiian Sign Language (HSL) remained alive in secret. In 1960, the circumstances switched. American Sign Language (ASL), which had started to be viewed as a preferred ‘white people’s language,’ was allowed in the school. This caused HSL to fall out of use because it was connotated with the native Hawaiian community. Those continuing to sign HSL faced discrimination. 

Unfortunately, the conditions in Hawaii’s School for the Deaf and Blind were not unique. There are similar recent examples, such as the imposition of French in Haitian schools instead of Haitian Creole. Likewise, Jane Okang, the Founding President of Amanfrom Academy, was forced to speak only English at her school in Ghana even though she knew several other languages. Speaking the vernacular or even making a mistake in English resulted in punishments such as extra labor or beatings; children would wear extra clothes to soften the pain. English was learned through fear. “Colonization is not over,” said Okang. “We are enslaved not with chains or shackles, but systems that now enslave the mind.”

The mental effects of this imposition are strong. Some believe that major languages are superior simply because they have been enforced harshly in schools while local languages were rendered worthless. Perpetuating one language is blatantly disrespectful of other cultures and causes individuals to be raised with the mindset that their identity is inferior or not allowed. The effects of Okang’s early education remain with her; she still hesitates when asked to read English publicly. It’s not a question of ability, rather a permanent mental connection between the language and the circumstances in which she learned it. 

We seem to be living in a delayed reaction. Children were legally taken from Native American families until the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. A 1982 reform attempted to allow Haitian education in Haitian Creole, although it hasn’t been thoroughly enforced. The Milan Conference’s verdict was not formally rejected until 2010. HSL has barely any fluent signers left and is irreversibly mixed with ASL, but it is just one of thousands of endangered languages that risk extinction.

And on that note, why isn’t it common knowledge that only 50% of the estimated 7,000 world languages are projected to remain by the end of the century? Linguistic evolution is natural, but not at these rates. About half of the Indigenous languages of North America exist today, while only 13% of those in the United States are spoken by the younger generation. This is so much more than statistics and numbers. It is a culmination of cultures, identities, and words that store life and history in their etymological roots, pushing through the soil and grounding their people. 

Learning a global language is still a great way to connect with others and open new opportunities. Speaking the national language in order to get jobs and support a family is often necessary. The problem is when that choice is influenced or forced by threats and dehumanizing attitudes. “It shouldn’t be like, ‘You learn mine and forget about yours,’” added Okang. “That is where the unfairness kicks in.” 

At the very least, there must be more awareness about language oppression. Nothing can change the actions of the past, but we can re-evaluate present worldviews skewed with superiority and prevent language-based discrimination from now on. Dying languages can be supported through organizations such as the Endangered Language Alliance or the Endangered Languages Project. Forced linguistic uniformity causes division and destructive social, emotional, and mental consequences. True unity comes from respecting each other’s differences.

“Colonization is not over,” said Jane Okang, the Founding President of Amanfrom Academy. “We are enslaved not with chains or shackles, but systems that now enslave the mind.”