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Native Education and the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis

An editorial in the Weekend Vancouver Sun reviews the postive and negative spins put on the recent announcement from the Provincial Government granting control of native education to First Nations communities. Titled “Language and Culture: First Nations Education Can Embrace Two Worlds” the story notes that the First Nations Education Accord has been publicly lauded as a way of improving educational standards on reserves and vilified as a way of isolating native students by making them (yet again) separate but equal.

My interest in the piece relates to recent class discussions about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or, the idea that your language determines your culture or worldview. The point of the editorial is to say that while native education of native students is good, the English and/or French languages should also be taught. Interestingly, this position builds from Sapir-Whorf-like statements about the importance of learning aboriginal languages:

After all, language isn’t simply a vocabulary and a set of logical rules for using that vocabulary, but is, rather, idiomatic — it’s a product and expression of the values and beliefs of a culture. In fact, language is culture. This is why anthropologists consider it necessary to learn the language of a culture if they really want to understand the culture itself.

And this is why many ethnic groups consider it so important to ensure that their language survives. If native children aren’t taught the languages of their cultures, it won’t be long before the languages, and along with them, the cultures, cease to exist.

The editorial turns with the assertion that because learning a language is central to learning a culture, English and French, the ‘official’ languages of Canada, should also be taught. Without knowing either of those languages, aboriginal children “will not be able to communicate with the rest of Canada.” This, in turn, shifts the geographic isolation in which many aboriginal people live to linguistic isolation.

Despite the acknowledged connections between language and culture, the editorial concludes with the sentiments of my students, many of whom were critical of extreme linguistic determinism:

…being required to learn one language shouldn’t detract from learning another, but should be embraced as a rare opportunity to understand two cultures at once.

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