Post-conflict reconstruction has classically been framed by mass media as a socio-political enterprise: one of decay and fragmentation, where most social issues are related to poverty, hunger, and lack of infrastructure. This creates a narrow perspective of what post-conflict reconstruction must be, and what post-conflict communities must focus on and develop. Language, for instance, is seldom talked about.
Language is an essential, indivisible aspect of our identity as human beings. It is the method through which we express ourselves, the way we communicate with and relate to our peers. If considering Dr. Kenneth Acha’s ‘7 Fundamental Human Needs’, language is directly connected to every single one of them: it is an all-encompassing and inherent aspect of being human that cannot be separated from who we are or who we identify ourselves as. Discourse and dialect are dependent on experience; thus, language is directly tied to our worldview. Communities that have overcome conflict and are following certain steps to reconstruct their society must, therefore, consider linguistic identities in their vision for policymaking and state reconstruction. As Freya Stancombe-Taylor argues, in a context of post-conflict, linguistic identities have become “collective memories of conflict”.
Conflict’s linguistic edge
When the roots of conflict (or at least prominent aspects of it) are based on ethnic differences, language tends to become a feature of the dispute as well. It is extremely challenging for individuals living in such communities to separate an enemy from its language, if that is an essential aspect that separates the two sides.
Let’s take as an example colonised states. Across the globe, the majority of the Global South (particularly Africa and Asia) remained under the control of European countries until the latter half of the 20th century. Native languages were pushed aside, in a way, to allow the increase of English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, to mention a few. Elites were those closer to the European lifestyle and mindset, often travelling to Western countries to learn from the culture and the language, and bringing those ideas back into what was denominated as the ‘third world’. Even a higher class than that were the native Europeans. In contrast, those that did not speak the languages were subjugated to the ruling of their colonisers, and often language marked the differences between coloniser and colonised in very clear ways. Similarly, policymakers had a Eurocentric vision of how to run a country, and this clashed with native expectations. Moreover, the withdrawal of empires from the colonised states was, in several cases, done violently. It left a power vacuum, stark inequality, and fragile political, economic, and social systems.
Because language tends to stray between groups, if they are forcefully merged, etc, I will be making the case specifically for those countries that saw conflict between two different ethnic groups with linguistic differences.
The post-conflict reality and language identity
The fragility of post-conflict communities leave space for the ‘winners’ to establish cultural and educational policies associated to their worldview, even without attempting to impose a certain linguistic identity on other citizens.
A good example of this is Sudan. After the war that would finally separate the North from the South in independent countries, the Khartoum (northern) government would establish their perception of linguistic policies in the Southernmost bit of the country. Because the Khartoum government imposed their own conception of how Sudan should be on Southern Sudan, there was a constant shift between Arabic and English language policies. This, in turn, demonstrated the “ongoing contestations of identity”. While the constant changes in Sudanese policy come in the way of there being a massive impact on people’s linguistic identities, it still serves to show the power relations there can be in a post-conflict country and the impact it may have on the longer term.
Additionally, language as a source of memory of the conflict becomes invaluable to understand post-conflict attitudes towards other linguistic identities. A pertinent example is that of East Timor, a small Asian country colonised by the Portuguese that became independent in 1975 (but was invaded by Indonesia until their independence in 1999). While the native vernacular, Tetum, is the most commonly spoken language amongst natives (90.4% of the population being fluent), educational policies have pushed for the teaching of Portuguese in public schools. Studies demonstrate that there has not been a good reception of Portuguese in the schools, and a big reason as to why is that there are still significant memories of conflict and colonisation associated to the language. Furthermore, parents that participated in the study almost unanimously agreed that they would prefer their children to learn English rather than Portuguese due to its increased international usage – but because the state establishes educational policies, they are unable to push for change.
A rather more conflicting example is Rwanda. Reconstruction in post-conflict Rwanda has been said to be dependent on how citizens are able to deal with those collective memories of conflict embedded in divisive linguistic identities. Similar to East Timor, the attitude of natives in Rwanda towards foreigners tend to be suspicious due to the historical background of the country. Moreover, it is not a negative attitude towards foreigners that are purely foreigners; anyone who has ties to the outside tends to be referred to with the terms ‘Anglophone’ or ‘Francophone’. The value of the Rwandan example is that once again, similar to East Timor and Sudan, there is not an accurate representation of native linguistic identities in official policymaking.
Language: the glue or the scissors?
Correct linguistic policies for reconstruction in post-conflict communities are essential to allow for identity self-determination, and no imposition on its formation. The manner in which a specific ethnic or linguistic group recognises a reconciliation or reconstruction programme in their post-conflict community, will be affected by the extent to which said group feels like their interests are represented within policymaking. However, that is the main problem of all these issues that I have highlighted above: the linguistic identities of groups that do not have power access tend to be walked over, and they are not protected. This directly impacts the way people perceive themselves in their own society, in their own country, by an external force.
Nonetheless, the presence of vast different languages in a post-conflict community attempting reconstruction does not necessarily mean that there will be a source for conflict. If done well, linguistic policymaking, as is argued by Rob Kevlihan, can work as a ‘social glue’ that brings together different ethnic groups. Even in the case of Rwanda, the academics established that language could be used to “play a positive role” in its post-conflict development.
While identity tends to have gained a lot of attention when speaking about refugee movements and post-conflict communities, the role that language plays in the establishing of that identity has not received the amount of importance that it should. Linguistic identities have been ignored, and in the cases where one group overpowers the other, personal identification may suffer as a result of not implementing correct policy making and reconstruction efforts.
If it is necessary to protect the identity of individuals in post-conflict communities, then it must be an imperative to harness the same amount of undivided attention to the role that language has as well, and its importance for correct societal integration.
Catalina is a first year International Relations student at the War Studies Department, King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.