Language Imperialism: how identities get negotiated, and suppressed

I came across language imperialism before I had a name for it. If you have spent time in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual setting, you will have experienced the negotiation that occurs to try to establish the common denominator, the language most commonly spoken and understood. You will have witnessed a group dynamic writhe under the effort to incorporate such individual Individuals and lend accessible expression to all their tongues. Language imperialism, however, is when this negotiation does not occur.

Marttinen describes language imperialism as less a group negotiation and more an authoritative demand. She is speaking especially to the school and boarding school contexts, where “non-English-speaking children” are required to mute their tongues in favour of the English language. Of course, this language imperialism could also favor other languages, but it is true that many international schools especially operate in this tongue and “the school demands that the child learn the school language as fast as possible, [discouraging] the use of the child’s native tongue” (Marttinen 1989: 306).

During my studies, I witnessed the informal segregation of student groups for whom English was not the mother tongue, and students expressed to me how they were actively discouraged from speaking their own languages in a dormitory setting, for the “sake” of the other students. In my thesis, I wrote:

This “language imperialism”, while perhaps seen as necessary for homogeneity and to discourage factions according to nationality among the student body, nevertheless has important implications for that student’s home life, relationship with their parents (Marttinen, 1998, p.306), and future relationship with their passport country. (Cason 2015: 62)

Language is the means by which we think about ourselves, about others and about the world around us. Our vocabulary is formed by our language(s), and therefore the expression of our experiences. I’ll never forget the sadness of a Polish-American student, that she had no one with whom she could speak Spanish. She had spent her primary school years in Spain, and it was her heart language. But no one even expected her to need to use this language, as it wasn’t tied to her national identity, but her experiential identity.

Our identifications are bolstered, evidenced by the languages we speak. Trying to explain to my British peers that I lived in West Africa, but that I had no answer to the inevitable cry of, “Speak African!” was… challenging. Are you “from” a country, when you can’t speak its language? Even when you’ve been given a whole continent of languages to choose from! 😉

Is it possible that language imperialism can damage, not only mother tongue identifications, but also heart and host language connections also? Once again, Third Culture Kids seem to confound categorization; even in our challenges we seek to redefine the terms!

But more than this. While language imperialism is a structural bias and problem, I have also witnessed a kind of internalized linguistic hierarchy within many TCKs. How many of us who are multi-lingual privilege one language over another? How many of us assign characteristics and values to our languages, and display or deny these languages accordingly?

When we lose a language once dear to us, and fundamental to our sense of belonging, and do not reclaim it, this creates a shift in our identity. We can almost feel the bridges burning and we know deep within ourselves that, without that linguistic link, we can never belong there again.

When we feel shame about language loss, we feel shame about our identity now, and call it ‘less than’, ‘reduced’ and ‘lacklustre’. When we are shamed for lost proficiency, we are shamed for who we are now – that our identity now is not ‘as good as’ it was then.

When we gain a new language, we feel doors opening around us, and the potential for new avenues of belonging opening up.

Perhaps there are languages in your story that you have shed because you no longer need them, because you made room for new ones, new projects of belonging.

Perhaps you have lost languages, and feel grief and shame about this, but are unsure how to graft past and present linguistic worlds together.

Whatever your language story, I hope it is one negotiated rather than limitations imposed from on high. And if you need support in the negotiating, get in touch here. I’d love to hear your story.


Cason, R., 2015. ‘Third culture kids’: migration narratives on belonging, identity and place. Unpublished thesis, Keele University: England. Full Text Here.

Marttinen, A., 1998. Nurturing Our Students’ Native Languages. In. Bowers, J. M., eds.,  1998. Raising Resilient MKs: Resources for Caregivers, Parents and Teachers, Colorado  Springs: the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI). pp. 305-308


  1. Dan says:

    Da kyau, da kyau, sosai, Dr. Rachel. (Good, very-very good)

    Though I’m well-past any practical application of Hausa, it does emerge in several settings. (It’s been over sixty years since I was last in Nigeria.) Snatches of Hausa regularly pop up in messages between me and my siblings. When we’re together, our speech is peppered with old familiar words and phrases. And when in the company of other folk with a Hausa background, another mode kicks in, and we talk like some kind of confused polyglots, freely mixing English and Hausa in the same sentences. Not exactly the subject of your interesting piece, but certainly a cousin.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *