Language, Power, and Nation-Building

So far, we have been looking at teacher identity and critical self reflection; now let’s zoom out to look at some of the “big picture” influences that shape the content and atmosphere in the language classroom.

As I wrote last time, language is not neutral. Corson (1993) is quick to note that there is a relation between language and power. In fact, language is used to exert power and also to talk about and challenge it. Think about a stop sign. It is a piece of language on a red, octagon that imposes the power of the law. You might use language to question the need for a stop sign. You might even use language to contact your municipal government and request that they remove the sign. Nevertheless, the little bit of language on that stop sign represents power; you obey it, or you risk paying a fine.

There is also a relationship between language, identity, and world view. Corson describes how social patterns such as gender roles are maintained and spread through our use of language, resulting in language norms that embody specific ways of thinking. For example, perhaps you have heard someone scornfully call a man a “sissy” for refusing to do something risky. You might think, “Hey, girls can be called sissies too; it has nothing to do with gender.” However, the Online Etymology Dictionary reveals that the term was originally a shortened form of “sister” used to describe an “effeminate man.” Furthermore, the word “effeminate” in the definition suggests that there are certain ways of acting that are limited either to men or to women, with so-called “women’s ways” being implicitly considered weaker. The man who was called a “sissy” might feel that his identity as a man is less legitimate because he is sensitive to violence. That is one small example of how language reinforces certain identities and world views.

Knowing that language is linked with both power and identity, it is not surprising that it has been a key component in modern day nation building. Before looking at the role of language in nation building, however, it is useful to consider what nation building is and why it happens. The Oxford English Dictionary defines nation building as “the encouragement of social or cultural cohesion within a nation.” In other words, it involves creating a national identity. Anderson (1991) describes nations as “imagined communities” for two reasons. First, he claims that they are imagined because one could never personally know all of the members of a nation, and yet we see ourselves as a community. This sense of community comes because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation” that may exist, the nation is thought of as having a deep comradeship (Anderson, 1991, Introduction). To maintain people’s bonds to this imagined community, it is in the state’s interest to highlight or create unifying factors through the process of nation building.

A key point in nation building is the use of language as a (supposedly) unifying factor. Stephen May (in Grenfell, 2011) comments on the process in which language is used as a political tool to strengthen the imagined community of the nation state. After the Revolution, France became one of the first countries to promote an official language (Grenfell, 2011). French became the “language of authority” (p. 156) and was promoted as the embodiment of the civilized French Republic, while regional patois, or vernacular dialects used by ninety per cent of the population, were seen as a threat to the unity of the state. May notes that a common principle of nation building is the ideal of a state with a single culture and language and writes that “modern nation states require their citizens to all speak a state-mandated language in the public… realm as a prerequisite for full participation in the wider society” (p. 153). In other words, in the process of nation building, speakers of non-standard dialects and minority languages are disadvantaged, and an important part of their linguistic identity is pushed to the periphery of society and seen as being unfit and worth less (Grenfell, 2011). Corson notes that as a result, linguistic nation building creates an imbalance of power that disadvantages and discriminates against speakers of other languages and dialects.

If language is a tool of such power in building the nation, how is that power maintained and spread? Largely, it is done through the education system (see Grenfell, 2011; Van Herk, 2011; Corson, 1993). The real question, then, is how can educators help to validate speakers of minority languages and dialects? We will dig into this in one of my upcoming posts, but I would love to hear what thoughts you have now.


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Please note that the Ramblings of a Linguaphile site is currently being used for thesis research. Between June 14, 2017, and November 30, 2017, any comments made on posts to this site may be used for research purposes. The identity of the person who posted the comment will be kept anonymous. For more information about the study, please see the About page. By commenting, you consent to participate.




Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities. Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Rev. ed.). Retrieved from:

 Corson, D. (1993). Language, minority education and gender: Linking social justice and power. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Grenfell, M. (2011). Bourdieu, language and linguistics. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Nation building, n. [Def. 1a]. In OED Online. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from:

Sissy. (2016). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved November 27, 2016, from

7 thoughts on “Language, Power, and Nation-Building

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  4. Mela Sarkar

    Yes, as you say, the power of language as a nation-building tool is spread largely through the educational system…and historically, educational systems everywhere have been developed, financed and maintained by the wealthy, for their own children. There have been exceptions! And they have often had an influence out of all proportion to the small amounts of money needed to finance them. But in general…look at the children of those who pay for schools (especially expensive schools) if you want to know who the schools are for, and therefore what vision of society they are intended to promote.

    Liked by 1 person

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