How Minority Language Shifts Affect Standardized Education Systems

Why translational power feuds with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels matter today

Age of Awareness
Published in
6 min readSep 16, 2022


Mongolian woman with child washing clothes
Photo by ArtHouse Studio from Pexels.

Before Gabriel Garcia Marquez was an internationally acclaimed writer for novels like Cien anos de soledad [100 Years of Solitude] and Love In the Time of Cholera, he was a young adult feuding with his copyeditor.

After receiving an award to publish his second novel, La mala hora [The Evil Hour], in Spain, Marquez was appalled to learn that his copyeditor had translated his work, without his permission, from his native Colombian Spanish to Castilian Spanish.

In an attempt to appeal to a larger audience and establish credibility, the translator had likely done what they decided was the best course for publication of the novel. However, Marquez rejected this edition (1962) of his novel in favor of the 1964 edition which retained his original Latin American dialect.

Prominent Latin American writers from the late twentieth century have described this phenomenon as “linguistic censorship” — especially if the text’s translation occurs contrary to the desires of writers (Harry Ransom Center). Linguistic censorship was a phrase coined in the 1950s, but the minority language suppression that framed the issue continues to stay relevant in the modern day amidst constantly shifting dialects and racial or cultural tensions.

While conducting research on Marquez’s texts, I came across the phrase ‘linguistic censorship’ on a placard at the exhibit and became curious about the circumstances under which authors would willingly choose to translate their texts. Why do we choose to conform our language to the majority?

As a scholar, I am drawn to the theme of storytelling and how the past can reveal what we might be too blinded by our own biases to see in the present. Yet I continue to return to this idea of storytelling and power. Who holds the power in these translational debates? The author should, yes, but what if the publisher knows best?

How does this affect how we learn languages? It is in our differences that we stand out, but in an attempt to standardize and compare, our education system emphasizes an understanding of the perfect ‘majority language’ — regardless of whether you actually speak it in your personal life. Because in a multicultural world, we should not be telling our children to conform their dialect and language to fit in.

These were the questions that led me to discover minority language shift, a psychological phenomenon described below that will frame the rest of this conversation.

Minority Language Shift: power, prestige, and a desire to fit in

Furthermore, these instances of dialect translation (whether intentional or not) reveal the extent to which minority groups or individuals change their roots to appeal to a larger audience. This process of abandoning minority languages in favor of the majority is known as minority language shift (Uriarte & Sperlich 1).

Social psychologists Jose Ramon Uriarte and Stefan Sperlich conducted a study in which they created a behavioral game model to see if participants who were part of a minority language (B) and culture but also spoke the majority language (A) would continue speaking Language B as the game progressed (Uriarte & Sperlich 1).

Unsurprisingly, participants who spoke Language B eventually assimilated to speak the same language as their Language A counterparts. This imbalance between majority and minority languages can be explained by the size of the populations who speak each language, but it can also reflect which group has more power over the other.

a visual graphic of minority language shift using colorful circles and multiple trials
A visual graphic of minority language shift. Photo by author (2022).

Though Castilian Spanish was in the minority in Latin America when La mala hora was written, publication in Spain (where Castilian Spanish is spoken) typically leads to exposure in European markets and a wider reader base. Professor Jorge Luis Castillo, who specialized in 19th and 20th century Spanish-American literature elaborates that these particular markets are influential in securing financial security for Latin American writers (221).

This explains the eagerness of some Latin American writers to get their works translated to Castilian Spanish and other European languages: for their works to be seen as prestigious because it has been translated into what they deem to be a more ‘powerful’ language.

A Live Case Study in Mongolia: language standardization or cultural assimilation?

Contemporary examples of minority language suppression hone in on different ethnic groups in an attempt to standardize rather than diversify. For example, a new policy was passed in 2020 in northern China to replace Mongolian with Mandarin Chinese as the medium of instruction in elementary and middle schools across the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, home to nearly 4.2 million Mongolians (Gan).

Chinese reporter Nectar Gan notes that many parents fear that the policy will lead to a “gradual demise for the Mongolian language, spelling an end for an already waning Mongolian culture.” The Mongolian culture is already in the minority, yet their language continues to be suppressed with the danger of cultural extinction in the region.

The Chinese education system favors the language spoken by the majority (Mandarin Chinese) in an attempt to standardize the nation and promote homogeneity (Han). The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR) is a landlocked region inside of the People’s Republic of China, so the Chinese government can still influence Mongolian policy and, in this case, the medium of education.

Although the policy plans to change the language of education while maintaining the autonomy of the region, Gan argues that this subtle change makes it difficult for the region to not eventually transition into Mandarin Chinese. This could impact future generations of Mongolians who will grow up speaking Mandarin Chinese in the classroom and might be, as a result, less connected with their Mongolian heritage.

A video of Mongolian students protesting the new language policy to Chinese in the IMAR (2020).

Mongolian students who choose to switch to Mandarin Chinese because they do not want to fall behind in school parallel the writers who are willing to translate their works into varying languages to be successful in the literary community. Minority language communities have to face larger obstacles to be successful in their rightful language because there are continued attempts to suppress the dialect that is so critical to their identity construction.

This idea branches out to the larger theme that translation and censorship ultimately come back to who is in power versus who lacks power and is instead forced to assimilate with the majority. Marquez’s La mala hora is an example of when a direct translation to authentic work is made in order to gain supposed exposure because Latin American work and writers were not yet established internationally during the mid twentieth century.

On the other hand, the new policy in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous region showcases how essential aspects of one’s culture are lost when minority languages are marginalized by external sociopolitical factors. This isolates the minority language and community because their voices are not reflected in policies or literature. Often left with no other options, these communities choose to assimilate and blend in with the dominant culture — seeing it as their only way to be heard.

Through a conversation in psychology, policy, and linguistics, it becomes clear that contemporary society continues to be plagued with minority language suppression. Language should be used to empower — not to suppress. There will always be meaning lost in translation, but one should attempt to find the original meaning in text to appreciate the cultural connotations and raise awareness for those who lack power.