Lost in Translation: Indigenous Languages ≠ Dialects

english learners esl instruction inclusive practices indigenous languages multilingual learners newcomers Jul 17, 2023

As educators, it is our responsibility to create an inclusive and empowering environment for all students, especially those who are multilingual learners and newcomers to English. Recently, I’ve noticed the tendency of some fellow teachers to refer to indigenous languages as dialects.
Enter: this blog post.
Join me to explore the crucial distinction between a dialect and a language and together let’s consider the power our choice of words holds. Let's reflect on the unintentional impact of referring to a full-fledged language as a dialect and recognize the immense value and legitimacy of every language and culture our students bring to the classroom.

Language: More Than Just Words

Language is not merely a collection of words; it encompasses an entire system of communication, culture, and identity. Every language carries with it a unique perspective on the world, shaped by the history, experiences, and values of its speakers. In short, every language is highly sophisticated, as are its speakers. It is essential to recognize that no language is inherently superior or inferior to another (Have you read, There’s Nothing Special About English yet?!). Each language represents a rich tapestry of knowledge and contributes to the diversity that enriches our global society. In fact, languages including English, Spanish and French borrow many words from indigenous languages (canoe, moose, hurricane, tomate, chocolate…), and indigenous languages have introduced grammatical structures, pronunciation patterns, syntactic constructions, and even cultural expressions to many world language systems.

Dialect vs. Language: Understanding the Difference

The distinction between a dialect and a language is not always clear-cut, and it can be a complex topic to navigate. Generally, a dialect refers to a variation of a language spoken by a particular group within a specific region. Dialects often share similarities with the dominant language and may differ in pronunciation, vocabulary, or grammar. They exist on a continuum, ranging from mutually intelligible variations to those requiring more effort to understand. On one end of that continuum was my freshman year college roommate from Oklahoma, who I could understand but spoke a Southern dialect of American English. At times this Northerner chuckled about how “pens” were “pins” and “coke” was any kind of soda (pop?!). On the other end of that continuum you can see how mutual intelligibility falls apart if you’re an American who has ever tried to watch the movie Trainspotting. The movie is in English, yet I watched it while studying abroad in Chile and did better reading the Spanish subtitles!

Now a language can be understood as a broader and independent system of communication. It typically possesses its own unique grammar, vocabulary, and cultural significance. Importantly, a language can have multiple dialects within it, which further highlights the importance of distinguishing between these terms accurately.

The Power of Words

Words have a tremendous impact on how we perceive and relate to the world. They shape our understanding, influence our attitudes, and can inadvertently perpetuate biases. Herein lies the responsibility to choose our words with accuracy! When we refer to an indigenous language as a dialect, we run the risk of diminishing its value and relegating it to a subordinate position in the linguistic hierarchy. This choice of words can inadvertently undermine the students' sense of identity, cultural pride, and the legitimacy of their language. Further, it positions the student, in the teacher's mind, as a speaker of something less developed or sophisticated which can lead to assumptions about the student’s capacity too.

Acknowledging the Richness of Multilingual Learners

Our students, particularly newcomers, bring an incredible global wealth of linguistic and cultural knowledge to our classrooms. Many districts with whom I work have received students from Central and South America in recent months and years. If we look at this region, we could not list all of the languages that are spoken and thrive. Guatemala alone is home to 24 distinct Mayan languages, such as K'iche', Mam, Q'anjob'al, and Kaqchikel. These languages have complex grammatical structures, rich oral traditions, and vibrant literary histories. In Mexico, there are over 68 indigenous languages recognized, including Nahuatl, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Otomi, each with its own unique features and cultural significance.

By recognizing the languages spoken by our students as full-fledged languages, we validate their identity, recognize their intelligence, foster inclusivity, and create a supportive learning environment. By embracing the linguistic diversity present within our schools, we can tap into the vast funds of knowledge that our students offer, enabling them to thrive academically and personally.

Checking Ourselves: Separating Intention from Impact

As educators we are used to the shifting jargon. The swapping up of better and more appropriate terms. We get it; it’s crucial that we constantly reflect on our language choices and consider the impact they may have on our students. Our intention may be well-meaning, but it is the impact that truly matters. By becoming aware of the power of our words, we can ensure that our language aligns with our goal of creating an inclusive and respectful classroom environment. And, we can be sure that we see our students through the widest and most favorable lens possible.

Language is more than just a means of communication; it is intertwined with culture, identity, and self-worth. The words we choose have the power to uplift or demean, to embrace or marginalize. It’s time we check in. What are my words doing? By recognizing the distinction between dialects and languages and employing accurate language here, we honor the legitimacy and richness of our students' languages. Let us embrace the diverse linguistic backgrounds of our multilingual learners, value their contributions, and create an inclusive space where their voices can be celebrated and heard. Together, we can bring deeper respect and appreciation to the power and contribution of every language and culture.

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