Language as a tool for cultural homogenization

By Lun Cai

China is a territory of great linguistic diversity. Languages in China might be as various as they are in North America or the European continent. We have 56 ethnic groups, most of which have their unique languages, and some of them even have consummate writing systems, like the Tibetan and Mongolian languages. Even, the language diversity among Han people, the major ethnic group in China is striking. Regional dialects are so distinct from each other that they cannot be classified into the same language under strict linguistic inspection. For example, the Shanghai dialect, the one that I speak, is totally different from Cantonese, both phonetically and morphologically. 

However, what’s so strange is when we talk about countries with language diversity, China is not a place that usually comes to people’s mind. And also, no matter how unintelligible it might be when I talk to my friends who speak different dialects, I would never doubt that we speak the same language, Chinese. That really makes me want to investigate the underlying reason behind this interesting phenomenon. 

It is not so much as a linguistic decision than a political one to categorize a variety of dialects in China into the uniform language system. Too often do we take China as a unified country that we tend to ignore the linguistic distinctions within this land. “Here, political and social forces work to encourage a focus on similarities, rather than differences”(Van Herk, 2018). The naming of a language is closely related with the progress of building a nation. Constructing the idea of a unified language cultivates in people a sense of national integrity and makes them form the same cultural identity based on the language they speak. 

If we look on the bright side, a uniform language through a territory can be taken as a good method to build up a nation’s solidity and cultural consciousness. However, for those minority groups who speak different languages in that particular country, this consistent national language policy could be an invasive force that threatens their unique culture and traditions. The dominant language is rather served as a tool for homogenization, which attempts to erase their unique cultural identities. We can easily list a lot of stories from the colonial period when English started to spread widely throughout the world and has become the dominant language ever since, but people should not simply think that those stories belong to the brutal and violent centuries from days gone by, and that suppression could only happen between different countries. 

I want you to pay attention to what is happening right now in South Mongolia, a province in China. The Chinese government just issued a policy that Mongolian wouldn’t be used anymore in teaching school subjects, which has brought a lot of local people to the street to protest, and more and more of them are being arrested as the Chinese government is trying to crush them down. It is sad to see this still happening in my country, and most of the Chinese people are either indifferent to it or feel powerless to make a change. 

So language? What it is? It is a tool for for communication or homogenization or even suppression?  It really depends on who is naming it and who is taking advantage of it. 

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”

— George Orwell, 1984