Social cohesion is one of the most important things in the world. We take it for granted, but I work in some societies where that’s not possible. It is particularly hard when education is dragged into conflict – schools are land-mined, teachers and students risk being killed and need to be escorted to school in army convoys, and very young people face being recruited to fight.
There are always multiple causes of conflicts, but education and language are very often factors. A large part of the history of the making of nations has been around struggles for language. In the south of Thailand, for example, more than 180 teachers have been assassinated since 2004 and schools have been regular targets of bombing.
Language is fundamental. We socialise infants into talking because it is the most human of acts. Our relationships, collective identities, political systems, education and economic activities are all inconceivable without effective communication, so it’s inevitable that language is also going to be involved in conflicts.
My parents, Italian migrants, were tobacco sharefarmers in rural Victoria. Neither spoke much English; we lived and moved between farms, some quite isolated from town. At home and with the other farming families we spoke our regional dialect; English was the school and town language. So I’ve always been aware of how language positions people and the opportunities that it brings or denies. Often speakers of dominant languages don’t recognise this.
Language is present in conflict in different ways. I’ve noted two kinds of language conflict relationship – fast-acting and slow-acting. The former operates through things like hate speech, vilification of minorities or ‘identification speech’ that aims to exclude people. For example, in Rwanda before the genocide, children in primary schools were required to identify themselves belligerently in class against the other ethnic group in ‘show and tell’ sessions. Children would go up to the front and had to say ‘I am this and the others are that and we don’t get on’.
A key example of a slow-acting effect is ignoring or denigrating the home language of children, such as when Indigenous and immigrant children are taught in languages that they don’t know, with no effort to help them learn the dominant or official language, and a complete neglect of their home languages. We know that in almost all cases, whenever mother tongue education is introduced, children stay at school longer, learn more and develop a stronger sense of identity. They are not so alienated from their family and so become more able to negotiate the demands of the two, which can often be quite conflicting cultural demands on their lives. It’s not always possible to teach in minority languages but it should be done where it’s possible, at least initially.
I’m currently working with UNICEF on the Peace Building and Language project in Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. Language issues and education policy are central problems in all three. My work is a combination of research and intervention, to help people affected by chronic conflict to produce language policies that promote social cohesion and peace-building.
Not all chronic conflicts involve open violence. In many there is long-running underlying tension between groups in society, but in many cases this tension accelerates into open conflict when state authorities try to heavily assimilate Indigenous people and minorities into a national prescription of some kind. This is what has happened in South Thailand since 2004. Alongside the political settlements needed to resolve the open fighting, there also has to be a strong focus on reconciliation and a new peace-oriented education policy.
In the last five years I’ve run 35 facilitated dialogues involving many hundreds of participants. Often there are individuals and whole groups who are hostile to each other, whether it is community representatives and public officials, local ‘radicals’ and politicians, or ordinary citizens and military officers. The process itself is very important. We write, collaboratively, new policies for problem areas. We allow individuals to name the problems they face in their own way, to be heard and to gradually build understanding. Of course we aim for more than understanding, but that is always positive if it is achieved. It is also indispensable to the next phases of constructive working together, and even consensus.
When things go well they go spectacularly well. Participants find that they can work with individuals they actively oppose or who have caused them harm. Disagreement might remain and antipathy might linger, but the aim is to generate understanding and even agreement about productive reform in language and education policy. They might agree to do some research together, or to jointly supervise an investigation, or try new programs in schools or oversee an innovation.
The biggest breakthroughs have been in Myanmar where three states have developed their own policies after many of these dialogues and some really rocky periods. This is a country that’s had 50 years of civil war between the dominant group and the ethnic minorities spanning 135 language groups. It will take many years for most of the language problems to be fully addressed nationally, but the methods we have kicked off are being used much more widely now with local facilitators. This is great to see.
We’re just at the beginning of understanding all the ways in which language is connected to social cohesion. I want to do some work in multiethnic suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, where wellbeing and social cohesion and academic success are all under pressure. Australia’s deep need for international success relies on social cohesion at home. One of our national boasts is that we are a vibrant multicultural but also cohesive society, and if this is indeed a ‘competitive advantage’ we must invest in securing this against current challenges and predictable future ones.
The work I do can be very tough emotionally, but it’s also intellectually and morally very rejuvenating.
– As told to Val McFarlane, University of Melbourne
Professor Joseph Lo Bianco was recently awarded a prestigious Universitas 21 Award in recognition for his excellence and innovation in internationalisation.
Banner Image: Children at the Ban Tractor refugee camp on the Thai/Myanmar border. Picture: Gary Moore/Trocaire via Flickr