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From dictatorship to dictation

Christopher J Hall

Stalin from a Soviet propaganda poster (Source: Wikimedia Commons)I have just discovered the Intrranet, a global online translators' and interpreters' network which has a 'language in the news' service. The first story in the list is a Moscow Times article about the recent death of Joseph Stalin's translator and interpreter, Vladimir Yerofeyev. This reminded me that Stalin himself had a keen interest in linguistics, publishing a series of articles on the subject in Pravda in 1950.

Stalin was a second language speaker of Russian, and he spoke it with a distinct Georgian accent which many Russians made fun of (way behind his back, presumably). He has been described as 'hardly a bearer of standard Russian' (Comrie et al. 1996, p. 44), and yet his writings show a solid commitment to the existence and importance of national standard varieties. Stalin writes:

[…] language has been created precisely in order to serve society as a whole, as a means of intercourse between people, in order to be common to the members of society and constitute the single language of society, serving members of society equally, irrespective of their class status.

He continues:

[…] The existence of dialects […] does not negate but confirms the existence of a language common to the whole of the given people, of which they are offshoots and to which they are subordinate.

The existence of variation in language is presented as undesirable, associated with reactionary elites:

[…] [P]eople, the various social groups, the classes, are far from being indifferent to language. They strive to utilize the language in their own interests, to impose their own special lingo, their own special terms, their own special expressions upon it. The upper strata of the propertied classes […] particularly distinguish themselves in this respect. […]

He says nothing of the proletariat's or peasantry's use of language 'in their own interests', but only allows for local dialects to free themselves from their 'subordinate' status 'in the process of formation of nations, [when they] may become the basis of national languages and develop into independent national languages'.

The monolithic ideology of language and nation that Stalin propounded predates him by centuries and continues to flourish today. One variant is the 'one language, one nation' myth, as evidenced in the US Official English debate (affecting the provision of bilingual education) and the LADO policies discussed by Rachel in a blog posting here last month. Stalin's own actions in the multilingual Soviet Union demonstrate his belief in this particular strain of monolithic thinking. His rule saw the reversal of the more enlightened approach to language policy and planning that had been introduced under Lenin after the Russian Revolution (cf. Grenoble, 2003). Among the millions of Soviet citizens that Stalin imprisoned or murdered, there was a good number of linguists. They were punished because they had championed minority language rights, resisting his imposition of the Russian cyrillic alphabet and his curtailment of mother tongue education across the Soviet republics (cf. Hall, 2005, pp. 263-4).

But in his Pravda articles, Stalin was more concerned with monolingual than multilingual diversity. The monolithic view of national varieties, which we critique in Chapter 2 of Mapping Applied Linguistics, has implications for many areas of applied linguistic practice. One of the most obvious, perhaps, is the question of which target or model to use in additional language education. In English Language Teaching, it has been pretty much confined to 'Standard' British or American English, as purveyed by the British Council, the US Information Agency (until 1999), and various Anglo-American publishing houses.  In a recent article (Hall, forthcoming), I argue that we should take the emphasis off monolithic targets altogether, and recognize the inevitability that learners will build their own mental representations of the language, on the basis of their own localized experiences, identities and objectives.

'I fink ther4 I am' (Source: FINK's photostream)This, I think, is relevant for other areas of applied linguistics, like literacy teaching.  Skilled practitioners are aware that learners' local versions of the language will differ significantly from the 'national variety' behind the writing system, and that these differences will vary from individual to individual. For example, consider a dictation exercise intended to practise the letter combination 'th'. Reflective teachers know that the assumption of only two different sounds (/ð/ and /θ/) for 'th' won't match the sound-making experience of those kids for whom the words mother and lover only differ in the initial consonant and—for UK speakers—thought and fort are homophones. To refer to this phenomenon as th-fronting, as most linguists do, is arguably succumbing to the monolithic myth, by tacitly assuming that (unmarked) English has one basic pair of 'th' phonemes /ð/ and /θ/, which some (marked) speakers replace in some contexts with /v/ and /f/. The same is true for the use of more familiar terms like 'h-dropping', which suggests that in the one 'correct' version of English, pronunciation follows spelling, and the letter h is always pronounced1.

It's a long way from dictatorship to dictation, I know, but the monolithic thinking behind Stalin's linguistics is not unconnected with the monolithic thinking behind the policies and practices we are familiar with in many areas of concern for applied linguists. Yerofeyev’s sons Viktor and Andrei have been treated harshly by Russian governments, both past and present, for challenging monolithic national ideology. Applied linguists may be inspired by them to engage in their own, certainly safer but also worthwhile, 'plurilithic'2 dissidence.

1 Except, of course, in the cases where it isn’t, like honour and—for UK speakers—herb.

2 The term plurilithic was first used in Makoni and Pennycook (2007), to contrast with monolithic thinking about language.


Comrie, B., Stone, G. and Polinsky, M. (1996). The Russian language in the twentieth century (2nd edn.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grenoble, L. A. (2003). Language policy in the Soviet Union. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Hall, C. J. (2005). An introduction to language and linguistics. Breaking the language spell. London and New York: Continuum.

Hall, C. J. (forthcoming). Cognitive contributions to plurilithic views of English and other languages. Applied Linguistics.

Makoni, S. and Pennycook, A. (Eds) (2007). Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

References (2)

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  • Response
    Dictatorship did a great job for the language development in those days. I will come here for more update regarding language improvement.
  • Response
    Dictation exercise is a perfect example for practicing different languages all over the world. But many linguiststics have different views of thinking. I think every language should have both written and verbal form to keep that language survival

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