I work at a university which is introducing a new international international Master of Education program. One of the themes associated with that program is “Identity, language and culture”. Several of my colleagues immediately got to work crafting, nicely worded academic statements, but I held back at first, because it seemed to me that the three abstract concepts—Identity, language and culture—were too slippery and elusive to start with. So I decided to tackle my theme statement in two stages: first by putting forward a personal view then by drafting a more impersonal one addressed to students. What I will do is to post them here, then to invite some comments from colleagues to move the process forward.
Identity, language and culture: A personal view
November 12, 2013
If we adopt an international perspective it is readily apparent that language and culture are sometimes skilfully used as soft power instruments to project certain identities and achieve various political, economic and other objectives. The role of Confucius Institutes, the British Council and Americal Consulate libraries are just three examples that come to mind.
From the viewpoint of an individual nation it can sometimes be difficult for primary and secondary schooling systems to accommodate cultural and linguistic pluralism, given the pressing need for educational accountability, so pluralism may give way to assimilation; bilingual education may become a contested issue.
In rural remote areas where Aboriginal groups still have access to distinctive vernacular languages and cultures there may be a conflict between what local people value and what the schooling system requires (Devlin, 2009). Passive resistance, poor attendance and low rates of achievement could be linked to this dilemma, although there are many other medical, socio-economic, historical and other factors that undoubtedly play a part. Unacceptably high rates of youth suicide in this areas certainly suggest troubling identity questions.
As an individual brought up in an English-speaking Australian household, one of the most meaningful adventures I have ever embarked on is the one that started when I was 13: to learn a few of the languages of the word, to travel widely and to immerse myself in lots of different cultures. To detail the twists and turns of that journey is beyond the scope of this short paper, but I’ll just say that it has lead to many wonderful cross-cultural encounters and immersion experiences, which continue to remind me of how rich, meaningful and abundant life can be.