Modern languages

More than half of the world’s languages could be extinct by the end of the century, and many may not last beyond 2050. Charlie Furniss reports
The decline of global diversity is a familiar, if depressing refrain these days. And while the threats to the world’s biodiversity gain regular attention, we were recently reminded that our linguistic diversity is also in danger, as UNESCO celebrated International Mother Language day on 21 February.

Research by Mark Pagel, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Reading, suggests that humans have spoken more than 130,000 languages during the past 100,000 years, and that at the peak of diversity, around 10,000 years ago, there were at least 12,000 in use. According to UNESCO, there are around 6,700 languages in use today, and most other estimates put the figure somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000.

More than half of the world’s languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people and may be lost by the end of the century. Many of the most critically endangered are found in the Americas and Australia, where 337 languages are spoken by only a few elderly people. These will most likely not last beyond 2050.

For years now, we’ve been hearing of the threat that globalisation poses to diversity of all kinds. But just as it seems as if we’re losing the battle against homogeneity, a new opportunity to preserve our linguistic diversity has emerged from what was once considered the frontline of cultural homogenisation – the internet.

Imperialist threat
The main threat to linguistic diversity today is the same as it has been for thousands of years – imperialism. Historically, colonial powers considered minority languages a threat to national unity, and until recently, many governments practised policies of forced cultural assimilation with the express purpose of eradicating minority cultures.

Some of the worst losses have occurred where English is the majority language, including Australia, Canada and the USA. Until relatively recently, children from minority communities in these countries were removed from their families and sent to boarding schools where they would be punished and even beaten if they were heard speaking their native language.

Even without forced cultural assimilation, imperialism has taken its toll. Linguists estimate that the spread of the Roman Empire reduced linguistic diversity in Europe to around ten per cent of what it should be equivalent to its size. “The Romans didn’t have a specific policy to force their subjects to speak Latin,” says Nicholas Ostler, chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. “But there was a prestige associated with the language in most of their conquered areas – it was the language of trade and administration – and anyone who wanted to get on in life had to learn to speak it.”

The spread of Latin in the Roman Empire was closely linked to social mobility. The same processes are threatening the survival of minority languages today, says Ostler. “The Romans succeeded in making people live in larger communities, what we nowadays call urbanisation. People move from the countryside, where they would have been in small, traditional communities, to new, big cities – in shanty towns and so on.”

In these large, ad hoc communities, the regional languages aren’t maintained, Ostler explains, and some form of metropolitan language usually prevails. “The new generation grows up with their lives focused on the larger community,” he says. “It may take several generations for their traditional language to fall out of use completely. The first generation will go on speaking as they had done. But it’s a question of what they speak to their children, what sort of language the children hear when they’re growing up and what these children subsequently speak to their own children.”

Although most governments have now abandoned policies of enforced cultural assimilation, in many cases, the nature of their administration helps to reinforce the loss of diversity, says Luisa Maffi, director of Terralingua, a Canada-based international organisation that supports the protection of cultural and biological diversity. “Many nation states still see linguistic and cultural diversity as a threat to their national unity, so monolingualism is promoted in various contexts, particularly in schools where there is no multilingual education offered, and in government, where the national language is the only language in which politics is conducted.”

Such implicit endorsement of monolingualism conspires to place pressure on minority peoples to conform and assimilate, Maffi continues. “There is an idea that minority languages are somehow insufficient and inadequate if you want to make it in majority societies,” she says. “And there is essentially a misconceived either/or ideology: either you maintain your mother tongue, in which case you can’t participate in national life, or you forget your mother tongue and learn the majority language.”

During the past 50 years or so, the media have reinforced this process further and extended the penetration of metropolitan languages such as English and Spanish beyond large urban centres into smaller communities. “When India, for example, was under British rule,” says Ostler, “the linguistic effects of political control were relatively light: there would only have been a small proportion of native English speakers in the country, and by and large, they wouldn’t have used the language with the vast majority of the population.”

However, the pervasive influence of the media has effectively created a cultural divide between generations, Ostler continues, where young people speak their traditional languages with their elders, but English among themselves. “It’s all about what people want to be. Speaking English may be some sort of declaration of independence and a symbol of global aspirations.”

Maffi describes similar trends among indigenous minority groups worldwide. “Children go to school and don’t learn anything about their own history or language, and end up feeling there is nothing valuable about their culture. All of the images they see in the media are of the glamorised lifestyle of the majority, and that lifestyle is communicated in the majority language. So it becomes very difficult for them to find a reason to value their own language.”

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Globalised world
It could be argued that in today’s globalised world, we would be better off speaking the same language, whether it’s English, Spanish, Chinese or even Esperanto. It might bring the world closer together: we’d all have access to the same information and there would certainly be less room for misunderstandings. That might be the case, but linguists argue that when it comes to language, diversity matters.

First and foremost, says David Crystal, professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, language plays a fundamental role in defining who we are. “If you want to manifest your identity to the rest of the world, you can do it by waving a flag, by having a uniform, by putting a badge on – all sorts of things. But people perceive their language to be the main symbol of their identity as humans living in groups – whatever direction that energy is channelled, whether it goes for ethnic cohesion or nationalism or whatever – that’s what people are prepared to fight and die for.”

Language helps us to understand our place in the world, says Marcus Colchester, director of the Forest Peoples Programme. “Peoples’ understanding of themselves, of their relationship with the rest of the cosmos and their relationship with the environment are all framed in terms of concepts expressed in their own words and their own languages.” There are subtle nuances in language that tie people to specific places and specific ways of living, of using the environment and of perceiving visible and invisible forces, he continues. “When you lose this rich vocabulary that relates you as a people with your world, then you lose a sense of your own meaning, your own reality.”

The value of language in the context of identity is universal, as important to a hunter-gatherer in the Amazon or a subsistence farmer in Vietnam as it is to a lawyer in New York or a politician in France. English speakers in the UK may not appreciate how important our language is to our culture. But imagine for a moment the outcry if the EU decreed that French was to be the official language of government and education in the UK.

For indigenous peoples, the relationship between language and identity is particularly important, says Colchester. “Many indigenous peoples derive their identities from the way they live off, and relate to, their lands and resources,” he says. “And their languages connect them to their territories in physical and spiritual ways that imposed colonial or national languages can’t.” Day-to-day activities such as hunting, fishing, gathering, farming and herding are directly connected to the spirits and mythic beings whose stories are the founding charters that make these peoples who they are. “Many indigenous people who have lost their languages express a major sense of loss – of being diminished, even of shame – for not being able to speak their original tongue.”

As well as such subjective considerations, linguistic diversity is, in itself, of immense value to humanity as a whole, say Maffi. “Language is a key component of cultural diversity,” she says, “which itself forms part of the diversity of all life on Earth. It’s the cultural equivalent of the gene pool, which human societies have developed and contributed to from different points of view for thousands of years. And as we lose each language, we lose a repository of knowledge, values, beliefs and know-how that, in many cases, provide alternative solutions to human problems; we diminish that pool of creativity and inventiveness, and our ability
to adapt to changing circumstances.”

Ostler points out, too, that there is a scientific interest in maintaining linguistic diversity. “Language is a biological propensity of humans, and the variety of forms that it can take are still not yet fully understood,” he says. “To lose diversity will mean that we lose awareness of the many and varied features of human language – what part of our vocal tract we can use for communication, the different ways in which we can organise our semantic space and so on.”

During the past 50 years or so, the growth of the human rights and conservation movements has generated political support for the protection of linguistic diversity. UNESCO has developed an endangered-language programme as part of its convention on intangible heritage. And many governments have subsequently taken steps to sustain the use of minority languages and promote multilingualism. In Europe, in particular, there is now strong support for such policies, and in this climate, such languages as Catalan, Basque and Saami have been revitalised.

One of the most successful attempts to support a minority language has been in Wales, where the British government established a Welsh TV channel in 1982 and subsequently passed two acts guaranteeing the use of Welsh in Wales. “It has been tremendously successful,” says Crystal. “It isn’t just about seeing road signs in two languages, although that is important enough. The law now says that you have to be able to speak Welsh in order to work in the public sector. Without it, you just can’t get a public sector job any more. And this kind of public presence is vital to the survival of a language.”

However, the top-down approach hasn’t always been so successful. In some cases, even the best intentions have failed. The Irish government, for example, tried to promote the Irish language through compulsory education for most of the 20th century. But today, less than two per cent of the population uses it
in everyday life.

What tends to happen, however, is that governments make noises about multilingualism but do very little in practice. “Brazil, for example, has a policy guaranteeing the rights of its Indian languages,” says Crystal. “But in practice this counts for little, because the government doesn’t pull its weight.” In the developing world, it often boils down to money, he says. “If a country is prosperous and relatively peaceful, then it has time to sort out its minority-language problems. If, on the other hand, you have other big things on your mind, such as a revolution or a famine, then language goes on the back burner.”

In this respect, there are similarities with the efforts to protect biological diversity. In fact, like biodiversity, linguistic diversity is concentrated around the equator, and half of all languages are spoken in just seven developing nations: Brazil, Cameroon, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea. Given that such countries have enough on their plates coping with education, health, unemployment and the like, it seems that the decline of diversity is inevitable, and that the use of minority languages will become a luxury reserved for the wealthy.

Perhaps not: there may still be hope. Speakers of minority languages have one distinct advantage over plant and animal species
faced with extinction: they themselves can recognise their situation and have the ability to do something about it. Some linguists now believe that developments in communication technology have provided minority groups with new opportunities to take control of their languages without the need for vast sums of money and governmental support.

Increasing diversity
When the internet began to take off during the mid-1990s, many feared it represented the final nail in the coffin of languages already endangered by imperialism. While the World Wide Web was certainly revolutionising the way we in which we communicated and disseminated information, they said, because it was only available to those who spoke English, it would only serve to continue the decline.

However, in the years that followed, these fears proved to be unfounded, as the diversity of languages used on the web began to increase. According to Crystal, although English accounted for 95 per cent of hosts on the internet in 1995, the proportion had dropped to 70 per cent by 2000 and less than 50 per cent by 2003. Today, he says, around 1,500 languages are used on the net. “This trend will continue as more and more people come online – in Africa, for example, less than five per cent of people are currently online – and when they do, we expect to see even more diversification.”

Peter Austin, director of the Endangered Languages Academic Programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, attributes this increase in diversity to the lack of control on the internet. “Unlike most TV or radio, the web isn’t in the hands of big media corporations. You don’t need to pay for a broadcasting licence or a publishing plant. You just need an internet account and a little bit of technology, and you can produce information, news, videos, photographs and so on as much as you want.”

Many minority groups are now taking advantage of this freedom to document literature, songs and other cultural material. Several sites now support the Hawaiian language, which, until a few years ago, was in a very dire situation, with less than 0.1 per cent of the population being able to speak it, says Austin. “Now they’ve digitised and uploaded a huge number of books and other materials published in the 19th century that fell out of print years ago and was virtually impossible to find,” he says. “In doing so, they’ve made it completely open and accessible to anyone who wants to study the language.”

The Mayan community in Mexico has made similar efforts. “There are Mayan linguists, teachers and other specialists who are publishing large amounts of material online in their own languages. Likewise, there are now a number of sites dedicated to promoting the rich Neapolitan literary tradition, and the Saami of northern Scandanavia, indigenous people of Siberia, the Ainu of Japan and numerous Central Asian language groups are developing websites of written language and cultural materials.”

As well as such dedicated sites, there has been a rapid increase in the number of languages represented on such popular websites as Wikipedia, which has more than 150, including Cornish, Breton, Aragonese, Wolof, Cherokee and Aromanian.

The increase in bandwidth and availability of video technology is also allowing minority groups to document their languages and cultures for the first time. “We’re increasingly seeing community groups and local people recording ceremonies, stories, plays and other events,” says Austin, “and posting them on the internet or distributing them on DVDs and VCDs.” This is important because written language is limited in that it can’t show tone of voice, intonation, gestures and context. “The combination of audio and visual is so much stronger and more effective in language learning than text alone.”

Documenting and disseminating cultural materials is all very well. But the only way to preserve a language is to continue to use it. “If there is no use for it, it will disappear and die,” says Austin. This is where the internet can really help, he says.

The development of a new online infrastructure known as Web 2.0, which allows participatory and contributary use of the internet, has opened up new uses for languages: so-called virtual speech communities. “Chat rooms and blogs and sites such as YouTube and MyFace have created opportunities for communication where it once wasn’t possible,” says Austin. These are particularly important for communities in diaspora, he says. “If you’re a Berber speaker from a small village in Algeria living in France, you won’t have much chance to speak your mother tongue. But what has now emerged is an international network of Berber speakers who are able to get on to the internet and chat to each other.”

However, the value of Web 2.0 isn’t just in bridging physical divides. Some linguists argue that the internet’s popularity with young people can also help to solve the problems related to cultural aspirations that can interrupt the transmission of languages between generations. “The failure of the Irish government to
promote the use of Irish last century illustrates a fundamental point about saving endangered languages,” says Crystal. “No matter how much money comes from government, no matter how many language acts are passed, no matter how much time is assigned in the curriculum, a language will disappear if the next generation gets turned off it.”

In order for a language to survive, he explains, it must be allowed to keep pace with society, and there must be some kind of enthusiasm among the new generation at grassroots level. “But in the past, many countries decided that the best way to save a language is to teach it at schools. The problem is that it becomes like learning Latin – an academic exercise that has little relevance to young peoples’ everyday lives. They end up learning to read it and maybe speak a few words, but it’s no longer a living language.”

Crystal is one of a growing number of linguists who believe that the development of new social networks as part of the Web 2.0 phenomenon offers new opportunities for minority languages to flourish. “In chat rooms and blogs and on sites such as YouTube, young people are able to use these languages in a way that is relevant to their lives.”

In the process, he continues, the language is not only brought into everyday use, it’s allowed to evolve and, crucially, to keep pace with society. “One of the greatest dangers to an endangered language can come from within,” he says, “from the elders of a community who impose a very purist mentality upon the language and criticise young people for not using it properly. If I were a young Welsh lad – who was reasonably proud of my language but wanted to make it cool and modern – and these old fogies started telling me off all the time, I would probably get cheesed off eventually and think, ‘Sod it, I’m going to speak English.’”

Again, the bottom–up nature of the internet is important, says Crystal. “Kids are drawn to these uncontrolled media because they are very much oriented towards the individual. This context also allows these languages to have enormous vitality, which they wouldn’t otherwise have in the classroom or in a text book.”

However, while the internet has great potential, there are limits to the extent to which it can help. A community needs a certain level of infrastructure – an electricity supply, IT equipment and so on – before it can take advantage of the opportunities available online. Hence, poorer, more remote populations are likely to miss out.

In these cases, another new technology may eventually have more impact, says Austin. “Mobile phone coverage today is enormous. Obviously it doesn’t cover the whole planet yet, but the cheap technology and calling options, and the fact that they’re so easy to use, mean that people can now speak to each other however they want, in whichever language they want.” Because phones are language neutral, they will have many of the same benefits to language maintenance and revitalisation as the internet.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t get too caught up in the idea that technology is the saviour of endangered languages, says Jessie Little Doe, a Native American linguist involved in the revitalisation of Wampanoag in the USA. “The telephone is wonderful, and the internet can be really helpful, but I don’t think that they are a substitute for speaking with another person face to face, when you can gauge emotions and physical interactions between two people. That is the best environment for a language to be used.”

Ostler points out that the survival of a language ultimately depends on the value the community gives it. “There are many linguists who speak at conferences about how they have developed interactive, technical, often computer-based solutions to learning minority languages, or to communicating between people in minority languages, and they think the problem is solved. But it isn’t. A language only survives as long as it goes on being spoken by its own people in their everyday lives. The fact that there is a machine involved doesn’t sustain the language.”

In the end, it’s all about morale and respect, he says. “The most useful thing we can do is to celebrate the diversity such as it is, so that as people make and maintain links with metropolitan and global communities, they are proud to be members of their smaller communities and to speak their native languages.”


What is an endangered language?
A rule of thumb is that any language with fewer than 10,000 speakers is in danger. However, the total number of speakers isn’t always a clear indication of the health of a given language. In the South Andaman Islands, for example, fewer than 100 people speak Önge, but it’s the primary language of those who do and, critically, the first language of all of the islands’ children. Consequently, it would be considered less threatened than a language such as Chipewyan in Canada, where more then 4,000 belong to the ethnic group that uses the language, but there is little use among the new generation.

When one language just isn't enough
In modern English-speaking nations, it’s easy to assume that humans are born to speak one language. But studies have shown that, in fact, multilingualism is the normal human condition. “In the history of humanity, multilingualism has been extremely common,” says Luisa Maffi, director of Terralingua, “and there is even evidence to suggest that multilingual children have an intellectual advantage.”

Today, approximately three quarters of the world’s population is multilingual, says David Crystal, professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor.
“But it’s important to note that we’re not talking about a European concept of multilingualism in which everything in language A is translated into language B.”

In Africa, he explains, a person might have five languages, each with a different purpose – one for home, another for church, another for the market and so on. “Often people can’t translate between them because the contexts are so different. This a more natural form of multilingualism, where you use as much of a language as you need in order to be who you are.”

The end of the phrasebook?
While the internet and other new media can help to preserve the use of endangered languages, software in development may ultimately offer us the opportunity to change the way in which we communicate altogether. “I think that before the end of the century, machine translation and artificial interpreting programs will enable people to talk to each other multilingually through electronic media,” says Nicholas Ostler, chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. “When that happens, it will undercut the very reason for having large-scale metropolitan languages such as English and Spanish, and the internal logic and dynamics of small communities will change radically.”


April 2007


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