Schools and linguistic normalization (some comparative examples)
Fito Rodriguez Bornaetxea

Professor of the Department of Theory and History of Education (University of the Basque Country)

Abstract: Historically schools have been used to favour certain languages and cultures to the detriment of others, which have been marginalized, for the sake of the modern nation state. Schools can help, with their traditional functions (mainly pedagogical, but also political, ethical and so on), to recover such historically discriminated against languages. In this article the author compares real cases which relate to this issue. In cases like Ireland and Algeria, political independence has been shown not to help restore languages and cultures, while in other cases like Greece, Norway and Finland it was precisely that political independence that was needed in order for there to be partial success. There are also other cases like Quebec and Belgium where this process of recovery has been brought about in other ways. The author concludes with some proposals that may be generalized to all of these comparative cases.

1. Introduction

Schools, a legacy of the Western civilization which through Illustration popularised the construction of the code and the sense necessary for the establishment of nation states in the 19th century[1], besides homogenizing and democratising knowledge and cultures[2], put certain languages in a privileged position, at the direct expense of others[3]. On the threshold of the 21st century the challenge facing education is, starting from a "democratisation" in schools of codes earlier confined to minorities, both to further explore the lack of sense education has ended up with because of its historical separation from life and, at the same time, to lead to the much-needed social construction of a "cultural democracy" which, from the basis of equality among all languages[4], would redefine the unequal situation of cultures — the legacy of modernity — and which, equally, would help to normalize the use of languages marginalized during this historical process.

There are thus various elements for definition and proposal that overlap in this analysis. There are those corresponding to the historical and cultural role found in the description of schools as an institution and their necessary and evident shortcomings —in fact, schools cannot shoulder the burden of all non-formal and informal educational tasks, which correspond rather to cultural transmission[5]. Continuing in the same vein, we may also encounter shortcomings corresponding to the "adaptation" which schools must approach in view of the "teaching of new literacies", namely the drawing up of (in)formative codes they presently face and which may mean the end of schools as an institution if they prove inadequate to the task of doing the jobs through which historically they became widespread — the acquisition of cognitive-cultural tools, socialization of codes for national identification, organization and selection of population, disciplinary construction of knowledge areas, etc.[6]

In addition to this, there is the socio-linguistic aspect. As mentioned above we have inherited an anisotropic situation[7] among languages and cultures rather than an asymmetric one; what therefore should the role assigned to schools in view of this educational challenge be? Moreover, what are the most relevant examples that should be taken into account in the face of this challenge, whether historical or atavistic?

In order to respond in a meticulous fashion to both thematic focuses —the reconstruction of schools as regards minorized languages and the teaching of new literacies — it will be necessary to start from a model of a critical cultural socio-linguistic situation which would permit us, using the simile of the remote control, "to replay the action frame by frame", and accordingly, rearrange the interacting elements in that social background. Let us begin, then, by defining the end-point of the process in a plain and operative manner so to determine its components and development.

2. Language death

There are numerous studies on the disappearance of languages[8]. Even if languages do not die out, they are instead displaced in their social use by others, the evolution of that process of terminal decline has been given detailed analysis[9]. In contrast, the characteristics of the social restoration process have not been, and such analysis is still at the stage of the proposal of casuistic hypotheses[10].

The death of a language may take place suddenly and physically when all its speakers have died or vanished, e.g. the language of Tasmania in the Pacific[11], or else when — as a result of some form of direct repression — it is not used socially any more (a radical language death), like certain local languages in El Salvador[12]; in fact, it may even remain alive if only in specific ritual ceremonies (a bottom-to-top language), the way the Yaqui language survives in Arizona[13]. At any rate, in our case, the type of most interest for analysis is that of the gradual disappearance of languages, that is, the characteristics of a progressive language shift processes which results in language death. By looking at this field through the classic pieces of research into contact linguistics (Hill, 1977; Dorian, 1981), and also through the ones closer and more familiar to us those characteristics may be summarized as follows:

Political and/or economic domination

Socio-cultural dependency

Progressive decline in use and social status

A gap in generational transmission

These four axes thus plot the course to a gradual language death. In the realm of socio-linguistics — since there is not, strictly speaking, a conflict among languages but among speakers, or rather, among cultures — this entails that a kind of "lingua franca" (cf. semi-speakers) takes over for communication between the dominant and dominated classes. Furthermore, concern over the "correct use" of one's own language disappears and the social use of the minority language becomes confined to restricted activities disconnected with one another (language allocation). In the end, linguistic reproduction comes to an end. All this, in turn, may be summed up in two concepts: Bilingualism and Language Shift — that is, diglossic development (cf. Psichari, 1910; Ferguson, 1959; Fishman, 1967)— and a single therapy: normalization.

The term "normalization", however, should not make us think merely of a synonym such as "planning", "administrative-structural use", etc. On the contrary, if we analyse the socio-linguistic behaviour in groups of minorized-language speakers, who — depending on their language practice — may in the end commit linguistic suicide, or else become indifferent to using or maintaining their own language (Giles, H.; Johnson, P.), we observe that, except for the determinant of linguistic competence conditioning the likelihood of communication, it is the "subjective" elements of loyalty to one's own language and/or the mere choice of it that prevail rather than the "objective" elements for an actual prospect of use. Thus, among the six behaviour patterns which feature all options (suicide/indifference/maintenance), the overriding one for linguistic maintenance is ethno-identity, i.e. that which directly relates use of linguistic code to its socio-cultural content.

It seems therefore that only a normalization accounting for both aspects (competence/code and deliberate social option) can face up to the challenge of the minorized language's survival.

Let us look now at some examples which permit us both to draw suitable conclusions to tackle the socio-linguistic characteristics of language death, as well as the concepts relating to them, and also enable us to approach educational therapies that favour the normal development of minorized languages facing extinction.

3. Schools and linguistic normalization (some comparative examples)

Even though the casuistic may enable us to index a wide range of very varied situations[14], for the sake of conciseness we will narrow our attention to what we consider key examples of either language disappearance or restoration. With plainly contrasting situations, the possibility of nuances in subsequent elaborations, be they applied, critical or programmatic, may be clearer and better founded.

3.1. Negative linguistic experiences in Ireland, Algeria and the struggles for decolonisation

The collapse of the colonial empires of Spain, France, Great Britain, etc. did not bring about noteworthy linguistic consequences in schools as regards the restoration of native languages, which at best and as an exception to the rule managed to survive in isolated cases. In contrast, thousands of indigenous languages disappeared in America, Africa, Australia and Asia as a result of expansive European imperialism.

In recent history, the independence of Ireland (1921), India-Pakistan (1947), Zaire (1960) and Algeria (1962) have not erased from the new states the use of their colonizers' language. The most paradigmatic case, however, is that of Ireland, where the 1937 constitution gave the Irish national language status and accordingly rendered it an official European language. However, less than 5% of the child population attends school in their homeland language[15].

Yet the struggle for Irish independence had its origins in a linguistic association —"The Gaelic League", set up in 1893 by Dr.D.Hyde — and the rate of Irish-language schooling reached its zenith in around 1940 (12%), that is, still under the influence of the generation that fought for a free Ireland.

The Algerian constitution, in the same way, declared Arabic the official language (not a word is mentioned of the Berbers of Kabylia…), but a noticeable French influence lingers in their educational system and as the language of culture, although the current Islamic reaction appears to call into question the FLN's "frenchified" practice. Equally, in Zaire French — and not Flemish — is the language inherited from Belgian colonization, just as English is in India, to the detriment of Hindi, or in Pakistan to the detriment of Urdu…

Evidently we cannot find here models of cultural decolonisation, of linguistic normalization and recovery despite political independence. In fact, to entrust linguistic revival only to the "know-how" of the new founded institutions of "one's own", so neutralising the social dynamics for cultural revival, can only benefit the language most strongly implanted in circles that modern society requires, which is normally the colonizing language.

3.2. The examples of Greece, Norway and Finland

Here political independence has indeed made possible a reversal of linguistic domination while requiring specific planning on the "corpus" and "status" of each language, with neither facing contradictions or tense situations.

Greece gained official independence in 1832 and immediately afterwards began a drive against the linguistic influences of Turkish. For this purpose A.Korais's "purified" Greek (Katharevousa) was adopted and imposed at every level of education and administration (the 1911constitution in its 107 articles permits only this linguistic variety). The other varieties of popular Greek and other languages in the territory (Macedonian, Turkish, Albanian, etc.) were to be prohibited and prosecuted. The creation of pedagogical alternatives (Association for Education, 1911), support from universities (Thessalonica, 1926), the cultural prestige of established writers committed to their language (the 1963 and 1979 Nobel prize winners Seferis and Elytis, respectively) and the steadily increasing social concern for the country's language brought about a change in the constitution following the overthrow of the colonels' government (1976), the popular Greek or Demotic put forward by Ernest Psichari (1854-1929) being adopted and consolidated as the national language, while the clash with other languages went on as before.

The Norwegian case, equally, deserves a detailed analysis even though for the moment we are limiting our attention to a simple descriptive approach. Norway gained independence from Sweden in 1905, although both had previously been under Danish rule until 1814. Political independence took place along with the linguistic struggle. In order to separate Norwegian as far as possible from the language of its prior rulers, linguist Ivar Aasen put forward the so-called Nynorsk after a comparative study of the popular kinds of speech in different fjords. The tongue inherited from the colonizers was, in contrast, a mixture of Danish and Norwegian dubbed Riksmal but "depoliticised" by its new denomination Bokmal. In the event, from 1884 onwards both "standard" varieties of Norwegian have been official and have both therefore been studied in schools. They have also been used in every social stratum as different options of a normalized language. Yet the height of Nynorks-language schooling — the variety containing most native peculiarities compared to the more "colonized" Bokmal — was reached in 1940 (34%), when the generation having experienced politico-linguistic independence could still value it as "their own", distinct and necessary. As of then the percentage has dropped, standing now at roughly 16%, that is, social inertia has prevailed over a more divergent linguistic choice.

Finland gained independence in 1917 and in 1922 established Finnish as the first national language while dividing the country into three linguistic areas. Despite the Russian legacy and the might of Swedish at the University of Helsinki (a bilingual area), as early as 1947 Finnish had already taken over. The history of this recovery is truly exemplary, if we take into account the special demolinguistic particularities of the tongue, the long-standing domination endured under neighbouring countries, the difficulties of elaborating a linguistic standard or the demolinguistic and normalization disadvantages from which it started. Nowadays, however, Finnish is normalized and consolidated in all respects.

In short, in Greece, Norway and Finland they have managed to halt the language shift process and normalize their respective languages, not only because they have reverted the situation of politico-cultural dependency from which they started but also because the linguistic issue has been a key element in their respective socio-cultural reconstructions, a public and widespread concern the resolution of which has not been delegated its resolution to public bodies, and has thus remained a permanent object of social debate and review.

3.3. The examples of Belgium and Quebec

A brief outline will suffice to show how both Flemish in Belgium and French in Quebecois Canada are, despite having different degrees of political independence, two good examples of social linguistic reversals worth looking into.

When a law for the linguistic protection of Flemish was enacted in 1932, there were in the region of Flanders 128 state schools and 101 private schools which were giving French-language education. Presently, 65 years later, the normalization of Flemish has been a fact of life for decades both in education and society as a whole.

In Quebec, for its part, Law 101 reversed the linguistic situation from the seventies onwards, and it can be said that, while surrounded by over four hundred million English-speakers, people in Quebec at the close of the century were able to lead their lives in French without any kind of constraints, whereas barely twenty years earlier this was virtually impossible. Nowadays, even to enrol at the "English" universities of Montreal (McGill, Concordia, etc.) one must pass an examination in French, as education must guarantee correct cultural competence in that language, up to fairly recently undergoing decline but currently, despite being a minority language, fully normalized.

In both cases, despite belonging to bilingual states, the standards of political empowerment in the areas we have been examining have made possible the application of territorial criteria which, far from bilingual patterns, have permitted normalization of the language in education, administration, the linguistic landscape, the mass media, trade, etc.[16] In line with this, social pressure in support of their own language has, in addition, remained steady during the whole process and, moreover, the political consequences of these cultural approaches mean that both states find themselves in a continuously instable balance.

4. Linguistic normalization and education: theoretical foundations and possible tasks

The whole task of education cannot be assigned to schools, but there are two key functions in the construction of learning which have historically run parallel to one another: The construction of meaning and the construction of sense[17].

Schools have been the great transmission medium of meaning codes in the West (reading, writing, calculus…), increasing their quantitative and qualitative importance after the Industrial Revolution[18].

Despite being an efficient medium for the transmission of meaning codes, schools have nevertheless been deficient in terms of the socio-cultural construction of sense — a failing that is on the increase, to the detriment of the social development of other alternative means of (in)formation transfer[19]. Moreover, it has been a means of acculturation for minorized language communities in favour of centralist and Jacobean assumptions of state which have characterized the 20th century[20].

However, when determining to restore the teaching apparatus of schools to work in favour of the revival of minorized languages, we should be aware of both their operating limitations as well as of their historical determinism. We therefore need to adapt the functions of school as the medium for the transmission of code and sense to present-day media society, in which the digital and global processing of information is rearranging these functions in new ways that are as yet hard to predict precisely[21].

Yet the very historical failings of normalizing schools in the 20th century with reference to stateless cultures lead us to see as a minimum, necessary claim the use of schools with that very purpose of what the state refused minority languages when it privileged some languages over others for its own construction and consolidation[22]. The essential undertakings of schools in the educational revival of languages and cultures historically left out of the modern nation state is both the transmission of codes for teaching literacy corresponding to each language and the proper curricular treatment of cultural contents corresponding to their respective language communities.

A seminar was held in November 1996 under the auspices of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages and the UNESCO, thanks to the sponsorship of the Luxembourg Education Office, which brought together specialists of practically every stateless European language, along with different contributors of state languages on the topic of "Minority Languages, Teacher Training and Culture for Peace" in which I had the honour to take part, and there it was agreed, among other things, to propose to the European Council the elaboration of a common handbook for the use of all European teachers which, from the essential democratic respect for all languages as equals, would advocate the above mentioned basic school functions for each.

In fact, in the case with which I am personally most familiar, I have verified that, in the various measurements of linguistic use carried out in the Basque Country the rate of loyalty to the native language is very high[23], that Basque speakers use Basque practically whenever they can, but there is an objective limit: the knowledge or lack of it on the part of one of the interlocutors. It is a responsibility of schools to provide coming generations with such competence.

For their part, as regards the treatment of cultural diversity, schools are more constrained than ever, since while they may and indeed must prepare only for certain content and sorts of speech, those others which may be necessary may have to be searched for in cultural backgrounds external to schools. Even though we should not resign ourselves from start to the idea that new technologies and/or teaching literacy relating to new symbolic systems are necessarily bound to be left out of schools, both the high speed of the evolution of this sector and the institutional tendency of the educational system must make us aware of how limited this attempt may be.

In the same way, it may seem pretentious if not impossible for schools to deal with the way young people address each other, their informal social relationships, and so on, all of which would be proper scope for both research on sociological grounds and, as far as possible, planning from a standpoint of linguistic normalization, but these are not fields schools venture much into, not at any rate as far as their systematic and disciplinary sides are concerned, although they may well do so in the diverse, informal ambits that revolve around them — the relationships among equals, playtime, etc.[24]

Nevertheless, in this particular field of sense construction it is indeed the proper job of schools to re-elaborate the curricular contents from the point of view of the historically minorized culture[25], since a language is, evidently, more than just a code and because the basic element for the maintenance of languages is, as we have seen, socio-cultural identification[26].

5. A look at the "Basque issue" in its linguistic and educational aspects

The latest data collected by the 2nd Socio-linguistic Survey conducted by the Autonomous Basque Government points out both the contributions and constraints of schools in the linguistic normalization process as well as the inadequacies resulting from the mere institutional-administrative management of a cultural and socio-linguistic issue.

On the one hand, the contribution of the school system to the linguistic revival of Basque is evident in the south of the Basque-speaking community since the percentage enrolled on the B and D (bilingual) models exceeds the figure of Basque speakers, whereas in the north the reverse is the case, i.e. there are more Basque speakers than those schooled in Basque[27].

On the other hand, after twenty years of "educational change" there are still 43% of those schooled in the state system and 53.8% of those in the private sector who do not study in Basque[28], the point being that to prevent the gradual decline of a language and predictably its disappearance in the medium term it is necessary to ensure that the coming generations know that language.

Furthermore, as demonstrated by our field-work[29], such schooling does not produce full Basque speakers but bilinguals who tend to favour Spanish.

Thus, it seems neither over-adventurous nor defeatist to conclude that, in order for schools to succeed, despite constraints, in fulfilling their proper functions in the sphere of the linguistic normalization of Basque (which concerns us now) or any other minorized language (in general), the criteria below should be considered as a minimum:

1. Languages go beyond states. This statement is but a confirmation drawn from the present situation in that administrative boundaries do not coincide with linguistic ones. Yet the educational treatment of languages depends on public bodies. It would follow that the normalization of minorized languages is an insolvable issue. This is why we should speak, in this respect, of "the Spanish (or French) issue", since the current troubles result from the linguistic, cultural and educational policies of these two states. There therefore has to be a willingness to create public, cross-border entities which in overcoming administrative hindrances would make it possible to plan and develop common educational policies for each language. The Barcelona proposals of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (6-9 June 1996) endorse this criterion in order that stateless languages can survive their historical displacement resulting from the state-based privilege accumulated by certain languages and cultures[30].

2. Educational contributions in general, and of schools in particular, to linguistic normalization, constrained as they may be by themselves, are of so great a significance that they cannot be left only under the charge of directives from state or public bodies. The contributions of civil society along with those of pedagogical and social movements must go beyond the framework of both dependency on public bodies and minority groups, and go on to participate in the elaboration and launch of socio-linguistic strategies for normalization in accordance with the situation of each language. The foundation of non-governmental organizations which besides disputing the state monopoly over the design of education would put forward proposals and generate planning is an essential component in this undertaking[31].

3. Schools have to ensure linguistic competence in minorized languages for the new generations, tackling the curricula reform that permits subsequent cultural transmission[32].

4. Teaching staff, especially in the big nation states, have to be trained in aspects of socio-linguistics such as is presently the case with didactics and/or evolutionary psychology so that they can approach languages in contact from a prejudice— and ignorance-free standpoint that will enable them to intervene pedagogically so making it possible to foster minorized languages in school education[33].

To sum up, these guidelines are but the Cartesian axes on which the position of each language may be placed in a practical manner in accordance with their dependency status or degree of development but, while they are theoretical foundations, they cannot be used by those of us in educational practice as an excuse to shirk our responsibilities on the issue of schools and linguistic normalization.

Related Links:

Commonwealth of Monolingual Basque Municipalities (UEMA):
Behatokia (Observatory of Linguistic Rights):
Basque journal on Socio-linguistics:
[Published on: April 2002]
Digithum / 4
ISSN 1575-2275

2.Language death
3.Schools and linguistic normalization (some comparative examples)
3.1.Negative linguistic experiences in Ireland, Algeria and the struggles for decolonisation
3.2.The examples of Greece, Norway and Finland
3.3.The examples of Belgium and Quebec
4.Linguistic normalization and education: theoretical foundations and possible tasks
5.A look at the "Basque issue" in its linguistic and educational aspects


Río, P. del. "La Respuesta a la Cultura de los Múltiples Lenguajes". Cuadernos de Pedagogia. 216: 32-32

Trilla, J. (1985). Ensayos sobre la Escuela. Barcelona: Laertes.

"Así se explica la importancia que tiene en las naciones modernas un sistema educativo, generalizado y unificado (…) habiéndose convertido la religión en un factor de discordia (…) solo una educación basada en una lengua común puede proporcionar la unidad ideológica y social (…), un nivel elevado de homogeneidad cultural (…) En otros Estados occidentales, Gran Bretaña y España sobre todo, la comunidad étnica dominante no tuvo tanto éxito en la integración de las etnias minoritarias; escoceses y galeses, catalanes y vascos miran todavía los nacionalismos civiles británico y español como si tuviesen un carácter predominantemente inglés y castellano y favoreciesen unas culturas públicas inglesa y castellana que invaden las culturas étnicas de las minorías y de las naciones sin Estado." Smith, A.D. "Tres Conceptos de Nación". Revista de Occidente, 164:9-10.

Declaración Universal de los Derechos Lingüísticos. Barcelona, 6-9 June 1996.

Trilla, J. (1985). La Educación fuera de la Escuela. Barcelona: Planeta.

Salomon, G. "Las Diversas Influencias de la Tecnología en el Desarrollo de la Mente". Infancia y Aprendizaje, 58.

Txillardegi-Isasi (1994). Soziolinguistika Matematikoa. Bilbo: UEU-EKB.

"Hizkuntz Heriotza". Bat. 19, 1996 (A dossier of the socio-linguistic journal Bat No.19 1996 on language death).

Dorian, N. (1981). Language Death: The Cycle of a Scottish Gaelic Dialect. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Dressler, WU. (1988). Language Death. Cambridge University Press. Hill, J. (1978). "Language Death, Language Contact and Language Evolution". In: Approaches to Language. The Hague: Mouton.

Junyent, C. (1995). Vida i Mort de les Llengües. Barcelona: Empúries.

Swadesh, H. (1948). "Sociologic Notes on Obsolescent Languages". International Journal of American Linguistics, 14.

Campbell, L. (1975). "El Estado Actual y la Afinidad Genética de la Lengua Indígena de Cacaopera". Revista de la Universidad de El Salvador.

Hill, J. (1983). "Language Death in Uto-Aztecan". International Journal of American Linguistics, 49.

The European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages (1996). Education in the European Union: Inventory of educational systems in which teaching is provided partly or entirely through the medium of regional or minority languages. Luxembourg.

O'Riagin. P.I.J.S.L. , 70:31.

Rodriguez Bornaetxea, F. (1996). "La Resolució no Glotofàgica dels Conflictes Lingüístics". In La Politica Lingüística a L'Estat Espanyol: Balanç i Perspectives, 113-114. Ajuntament d'Alcoi.

Alvarez, A.; Río, P. del (1990). "Educación y Desarrollo". In VV.AA., Desarrollo Psicológico y Educación II. Madrid: Alianza. Alvarez, A.; Río, P., del "Tres Pies al Gato: Actividad, Sentido, y Significado en la Educación". Infancia y Aprendizaje, 59-60.

Viñao, A. "Historia de la Alfabetización versus Historia del Pensamiento, o sea, de la Mente Humana". Revista de la Educación, 288:35-44.

Giroux, H. (1996). Placeres Inquietantes. Paidós.

Soltow, L.; Stevens, E. (1981). The Rise of Literacy and the Common School… University of Chicago Press.

Tolchinski, L. "Lo Práctico, lo Cientifico y lo Literario: Tres Componentes de la Noción de Alfabetismo". Comunicación, Lenguaje, y Educación, 6.

Rodriguez Bornaetxea, F. (1997). Ikastolak eta Euskal-eskolak. Egin Biblioteka.

Bat, 3-4;6;9;13-14;15. These are indications from this Basque-language socio-linguistic journal, which since 1991 has released several measurements of the social use of language in the Basque Country.

Barriola, I. (1993). "Interaction entre Paires et Construction Cognitive". Recherche de UFR. Université de Bordeaux II.

Pike, K.L. (1972). "Puntos de Vista Eticos y Emicos para la Descripción de la Conducta". Comunicación y Cultura. Buenos Aires: Nueva Visión.

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Data extracted from the Basque-language journal on education Hik Hasi, the only one encompassing the whole linguistic territory corresponding to the Basque language.

Data provided by the Counsellor for Education of the Autonomous Government I.Oliveri in Deia on 22/10/1996.

Erriondo; Isasi; Rodriguez Bornaetxea, F. (1993). Hizkuntza, Hezkuntza eta Elebiduntasuna [Language, Education and Bilingualism]. Bilbo: UEU.

The case of politico-linguistic reaction nearest to us is that provided by the Baltic Countries faced with Russian, since to enjoy the rights inherent to citizenship in these newly-founded states one must provide proof of competence in the respective languages ("Esthonia freezes out Russians". The Guardian Weekly Rev. 19 January 1997, page 5).

For this purpose Basque-fostering organizations met at a congress entitled "Euskararen Unibertsoa" in San Sebastian on 7-8 March 1997 and there it was agreed, among other things, that a Committee of Social Organizations would be established so as to complement the socio-linguistic actions of local administration.

Rodriguez Bornaetxea, F. "Euskal Curriculumaz" [On the Basque Curriculum]. Ikastolak eta Euskal Eskolak, 71. Egin Biblioteka.

Baker, C. (1988). Key Issues in Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.