Language Education Policy Studies
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Oral Languages and Codification to Written

The way language-in-education policies affect oral languages is that even for advocates of multilingualism and multilingual, mother tongue education- most believe that oral languages need to be written to have higher status. This means the translation of concepts into the curricular content of schools. Thus the problem of writing oral languages- previously a question of memory, history, storytelling and part of a holistic view of education- is now tied to educational standards and conceptual and pedagogical questions. Does every language need to be written and translated in order to teach standardized school subjects that are often of non-local origin? Are there resources such as expertise and financial means to create curriculum and print books in each world language?


Oracy (oral) is typically juxtaposed with literacy (written). Please proceed with caution- this topic of writing languages is debated. (See also Literacy and Multiliteracies.) Many of the world’s 3000-6000 languages are oral, endangered, and with low status, including the majority of Indigenous languages. Only perhaps 78 languages have a written literature (See Ong). Many languages have a vernacular as well as a fixed or spiritual corpus of language, with the former more dynamic. Even non dominant languages that do not have curricular content fall under the same umbrella. These languages become oral because the speakers cannot learn them in written form, for example they are only spoken at home or with friends, and not read or written.  (See Semilingualism).  The effect of literacy on languages has been that of superiority- oral has always been seen as inferior to written.

In sum, his question of codification is then broadened and addresses how education and language-in-education policies affect languages in two ways- first, the massive number of oral languages, and second, all the non dominant languages. Both of these purportedly need to be written, translated, codified into the curriculum in order to be ‘saved’- protected, preserved, and encouraged to grow in another generation. However, writing languages into curriculum will not necessarily revive them or solve the massive goal of preserving linguistic diversity and multilingualism, this takes a community of speakers and major ideological changes across the board.

See Worldview; Multilingual Education; Mother Tongue EducationDeep Education.


A few references:

Batibo, H. M. (2009). Language documentation as a strategy for the empowerment of the minority languages of Africa. In I Selected proceedings of the 38th annual conference on African linguistics, red. av Masangu Matondo, Fiona Mc Laughlin & Eric Potsdam (pp. 193-203).


Bielenberg, B. (1999). Indigenous language codification: Cultural effects. Revitalizing indigenous languages, 103-112.


Francis, N. (1999). Bilingualism, writing, and metalinguistic awareness: Oral-literate interactions between first and second languages. Applied Psycholinguistics, 20(4), 533-561.


Frawley, W. J., Hill, K. C., & Munro, P. (Eds.). (2002). Making dictionaries: Preserving indigenous languages of the Americas. Univ of California Press.

Matras, Y. (1999). Writing Romani: the pragmatics of codification in a stateless language. Applied linguistics, 20(4), 481-502.


Milroy, J. (2001). Language ideologies and the consequences of standardization. Journal of sociolinguistics, 5(4), 530-555.


Ong, W. J., & Hartley, J. (2012). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. (30th Anniversary Edition). New York: Routledge.


Vansina, J. (1965). Oral tradition. Transaction Books.


Vansina, J. M. (1985). Oral tradition as history. Univ of Wisconsin Press. 


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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Harrison, K. M. (2013). Oral Languages and Codification to Written. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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