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Autumn 1998 - Issue No. #32 (p.16)

Minority Issues and Language Teaching

by Dorothy Dufour

As teachers of English as a foreign language, it is important for us to understand how the suppression of one language by another through political, economic, and military means comes to pass. That being said, we must next consider our focus as language teachers.

When we approach the Ainu issue, do we ask questions like: "How many Ainu are alive today in Japan?", "Do they still speak the language?", "When the Japanese invaded/ colonized/ pioneered/ settled Hokkaido, were they rice cultivators or wild vegetable gathers?" These are interesting questions, but the often unspoken question is really: "If today they are few in number, don't speak their own language much, and in the past weren't as agrarian as the Japanese who took over, then why bother about them?" Or one might phrase this sentiment, not in question form, but in statement form: "They are minor." "They don't count." "We don't have to worry about them."

There are many answers to these questions and rebuttals to these statements. Some have to do with charity, some with justice, some with the common good. Some tend to be concerned with the past, some with the present, some with the future.

As language teachers, it is important for us to choose our focus. First we must understand that the Ainu issue is not only a local issue, it is part of the global issue called indigenous rights. Indigenous rights are up against another global movement called "globalization". At indigenous peoples conferences, which are taking place world-wide, "globalization" is called by a different name: "neo-colonialism".

As teachers of the dominant world language, English, where do we stand? Is there a moral imperative here? Are English language skills to be used to ultimately suppress other languages or facilitate inter-cultural understanding? Do our students want to learn English . . .

  1. because it is considered superior?

  2. because it will help them get a better job?

  3. or because knowing a world language is a means by which we can grow in understanding about our own relationship to the world community?

It has been my experience that many students would respond with a "yes" to the first two questions, but would flounder on the third. I wonder how many would see the Ainu issue or the issue of the world's indigenous peoples as being at all relevant.

In 1992, I first started work as an English translator of information concerning indigenous peoples to be published in the newsletter of an Ainu cultural preservation group called Yay Yukar no Mori. By profession, I have been a teacher of English as a foreign language for almost 30 years, 25 of them in Hokkaido. As a translator for Yay Yukar no Mori, I am required to question my own vocabulary and grammar usage. As an English teacher, let me state the obvious: verb tense positions you in the past, present, or future. Subject-verb-object choices and noun-adjective-adverb usage set the word order and define the focus of language. Consider the following Japanese government policy statements:

  1. The Ainu are the former aboriginal people of Japan. (1898)

  2. In Japan, minorities do not exist. (1980)

  3. The Ainu are a minority people of Japan. (1991)

  4. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan. (1997)

It is not within the scope of this article to expound upon the years of history, hidden meanings, and qualifying clauses behind each of the above official policy statements. The aim of this article is to stimulate interest in this November's JALT'98 conference at which I will be part of a panel discussion on minority issues and English education in Japan. Hence, I've asked a lot of questions and not given many answers. I've skimmed the surface, but not delved deep. If you want to hear more, please attend our JALT'98 panel on Ainu, Burakumin, Korean and Okinawan issues as related to EFL in Japan.

As teachers of English, we have a great freedom. We can make our own teaching materials. We can choose our own focus. We have to teach the basics, but we can write our own example sentences. We can choose the vocabulary and the verb tenses. This is a great power, if we choose to use it.

Dorothy Dufour (Hokkaido, Japan)


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