"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Whose knowledge counts

Few days ago, I had a conversation with my Chinese fellows about our accent and dialect when we speak Mandarine and English. I have always been an advocator of "the perfect pronunciation" and very pick about accent. But when I had that discussion, Dr. Muth's words suddenly came to my mind, "whose knowledge counts?" I felt like a dictator and oppresser at that moment.

The question "Whose knowledge counts" has been discussed in our class with several artifacts, one of which is the racist law. In that law, the government has their precise quantitative method to define the race of a person,  despite how the man understands his own cultural and racial background. In this case, only the knowledge of the authority counts. It appeals to famous historical figures to prove the righteousness of separating different ethnical groups. Moreover, the power goes beyond the determination of a person's race. It indicates, as well as legitimates, the authority which can intervene people's marriage, social activity and any other aspects of one's life. I just realized that when I advocate for the standard pronunciation and devaluate the accents, I am doing the same thing, legitimating the authority which defines the "standard".

When we talks about accent, the assumption is that there is a standard pronunciation, and any different pronunciation is considered as an accent. Obviously,  we had various opinion on this statement, especially when talking about Mandarin Chinese. Due to the long history and various cultural background, there are various dialects or languages in China, While Mandarine is not one of them. It became the official language as the government decided to take the Beijing dialect as a foundation and changed some rule to make it sounds more serious. In the recent 30 years, Mandarine has been the compulsory language in schools and any public occasions. Being able to speak standard Mandarine has become an indication of one's literacy level. The less accent one has, the more educated he seems to be. 

Now I couldn't help wondering why I have believed that Mandarine is superior to other languages, or dialects, in China, including Cantonese. Maybe it's because the power in Discourse. I have been told and believed that the government has the authority to decide what the "right" way to speak is. Their knowledge counts here. Therefore, despite of the long history of and the rich cultural in those naturally generated dialects, they are not officially acknowledged or encouraged. The government use its authority to legitimate the status of one language and alienate other languages, and those who speak standard Mandarine differentiate themselves from those who can't.

Just like what happened in the law, the power to standardize Mandarine goes way beyond the language itself. It has intervenes almost any aspects in people's life. Since Mandarine is especially appreciated, the culture that relates close to it is promoted, while other cultures are suppressed to some degree. Also, people who speak that language are usually regards as elites, while others the governed. It leads the gravity fo power to whose those have the knowledge of that language, and they create the hierarchy that serves to reenforce this system.

While recognizing the power issue around this standard language, I still can hardly argue against it since it has contributed tremendously to the communication of the whole nation. Just as Dr. Muth said, critiquing a discourse does not mean the discourse is bad. It is just how it is. I am just offering a different way to look at it and trying to be more open-minded. 

1 comment:

  1. Annie:

    I really like this post. I, too, am guilty of determining the 'right' way to pronounce words, although I have different pronunciations of certain words because of places I've lived. English is almost a standard for languages worldwide, and yet, there have got to be a dozen or more dialects. Fifty years ago, the midwestern accent was called the 'no accent accent', and most newscasters were coming from the midwest. I'm always surprised at how many Canadians have such good pronunciation of English. A bias on my part. If I can find it online, I'll post a link to Jeff Foxworthy's take on the Southern accent. It's spot on. So thank you, Annie, for pointing out the similarity to the standards of language reflecting standards in society.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.