How can language education counter violent extremism? (by Mehdi Babaei)

We are living in a time of tension and fear. The world has been so unpredictable and shaky, with violence flaring up in every corner: the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris; recent attacks in Nice, France, Belgium and Germany; recent shootings at an Orlando LGBTQ nightclub; and the 2014 shootings at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada. Rather than dignity, liberty, and democracy being embraced, these ideals seem to be in remission. A major share of this insidious violence has been attributed to extremist beliefs and radical ideas. These beliefs and ideas, inspired by various motives, including political, religious, and ideological, breed violence and have led to terrorist acts. Educators who care about humanity, safety, and a free world are looking for solutions to least alleviate this seemingly chaotic global situation (Ghosh, Manuel, Chan, Dilimulati, & Babaei, 2016).


Education specialists have come to a crux in their discussion: can education be a means to counter violent extremism? Unlike the extreme responses and reactions to terror and extremism (such as military action), education is softer, cheaper, and more effective. Education can work along with the reactive responses by police and employ proactive approaches because “educational strategies are not only long-term, but aim to accomplish long-lasting objectives” (Ghosh,, 2016, p. 34). In order to find long-term solutions in a country like Canada, all residents need to develop a mutual and thorough understanding of concepts such as diversity, acceptance, race and gender, in every educational subject. Language education is no exception, as language classes are a place where one can learn about the ‘other,’ by learning about their language and culture. Moreover, critical language literacy is essential for both youth and adult education for identifying and understanding how to distinguish the inaccurate and false propaganda by media such as that used so skilfully by extremist groups.

Adults and young adults in the Canadian education system are confronted with a type of education highlighting concepts of acceptance, diversity, tolerance, and forms of expression. Although concepts like culture, religion, ethics (such as the Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program in Quebec), and social studies in general are taught and discussed through school subjects, a true integration of such concepts into the curriculum is still in urgent need. In addition, diversity (e.g. ethnic, religious and linguistic) in post-secondary education in North America is increasing, due to the arrival of a huge number of multilingual immigrants. Language programs such as academic English, French or language arts classes are places where individuals with diverse cultural, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds learn together and need to develop critical literacy skills.


A common way of getting students engaged in the activities of language classes is to have discussions about controversial issues such as human rights, good citizenship, social justice, etc. Language classes offered by the government of Canada (e.g. Language Instruction for New Canadians) or provincial measures (such as Quebec’s linguistic and culture integration courses) teach language as well as culture and literacy but we need to add a critical aspect to these programs. How might language educators make significant contributions to reducing tension and violence? The immediate response could be: having inclusive classes and developing students’ critical literacy skills. How might ‘language’ itself help educators create a dialogue to attain mutual understanding and harmony? Language teachers and researchers might create inclusive learning environments whereby individuals—both youth and adults—learn, understand, and respect the diversity among languages and beliefs, and forge an identity that acknowledges a learner’s being and belonging. Once this has been established, what tools do students need to be able to recognize propaganda and inaccuracies in print, digital and internet media?

I will offer some suggestions regarding potential strategies to create a linguistically inclusive learning environment and critical media literacy in order to bridge the gaps within various cultural communities in Canada and develop engaged and critical citizens. I will do this by responding to the question: how might language education play a role in countering or minimizing extremist behaviour? The following list provides a few of my still-developing thoughts on the strategies that language teachers and educators can implement to adopt inclusive language education practices. Readers, I would love to receive your input:

  1. Acknowledging social inclusion within language classes: more attention is paid to socio-political aspects of language teaching and learning; the idea of critical pedagogy in second language education; promoting social justice; reflecting on the issues related to gender equality, LGTB rights, ethnic minorities, or marginalized people.
  2. Linguistic inclusiveness: all languages are acknowledged and integrated into the curriculum; promoting the concepts of acceptance and tolerance among the learners; understanding each other’s beliefs and values and other languages as a way to understand their speakers.
  3. Multiliteracy: attention is paid to variability of meaning making in different cultural, social or domain-specific contexts and multimodal means of communication.
  4. Culturally responsive language teachers: includes student-centered instruction; raising awareness towards other languages and cultures.
  5. Critical thinking skills: a learning environment is created in which students develop critical thinking skills through discussing the universal values; developing an ability to think critically about the world; preparing students to think and act logically rather than violently.
  6. Reflective teaching: Having the three major attributes of: open-mindedness, responsibility, and wholeheartedness (Dewey, 1933); creating a learning environment where students gain a deeper, unbiased understanding of the issues that might lead to extremist behaviour.
  7. Learning environment and safe spaces: an environment is created where students look at other languages and cultures as learning resources, aiming to a multilingual inclusiveness; creating safe spaces where learners can engage in intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding.


To sum up, a person’s language and culture shapes his or her identity. If either the language or culture is threatened, discarded, or even unacknowledged, the student’s sense of identity might be in danger, which might lead to exhibiting extremist behaviour. Thus, language educators, including teachers and researchers, need to create learning spaces where diverse groups of learners can have a sense of belonging, in learning to discuss their identity, language and culture.


Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company.

Ghosh, R., Manuel, A., Chan, W. Y. A., Dilimulati, M. & Babaei, M. (2016). Education & Security: A Global Literature Report on Countering Violent Religious Extremism (CVE). Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Retrieved from



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