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Near Extinction: Preserving Dying Languages

Near Extinction: Preserving Dying Languages

. 4 min read

Gina Kramer. Originally published in the HIR Winter/Spring 2000 Issue.

Langue. Lengua. Lingua. Language. Expressed in any tongue, shared language fosters cultural identity and facilitates a sense of community among its speakers. However, the contribution of language to a local society often goes unnoticed until that language and its corresponding cultural legacy faces extinction.

Over the past century, thousands of languages have approached extinction as their populations have increasingly adopted the more "universal" languages of Chinese, Spanish, and English. This globalization of communication has resulted in linguistic homogenization; the ten most common languages in the world are now spoken by 49 percent of the world's population. This process has been accelerated by the infiltration of television, print, film, radio, and the internet into previously isolated cultures, a transition that has connected disparate regions of the globe by replacing native tongues with global ones. As the many unforeseen negative effects of globalization surface, efforts are being made to combat what is perhaps the most pervasive and least palpable consequence—that of language extinction.

Papua New Guinea, with over 1,300 distinct indigenous languages, many of which are approaching extinction, exhibits the full spectrum of language extinction, ranging from the endangered Budibud to the nearly extinct Bilakura. One Papua New Guinean language names birds by mimicking their calls; another, called Olo, has 40 metaphors for "heart." Rotokas uses only 13 phonemes (the basic units of sound) while Yele uses 96. All of these forms of communication are unique and idiosyncratic and are in danger of becoming extinct due to globalizing pressures. Douglas Whalen, a Yale University linguist and president of the Endangered Language Fund, labels each disappearance "a cultural disaster" that shows a global lack of respect for disparate perspectives on the world. Given the relatively low cost attached to a solid study of one language by collégial or institutional groups US$100,000 or less according to a UNESCO projection much of the reason for linguistic decay seems driven more by inaction than by fiscal constraint.

Certain academic efforts have been initiated to slow the trend of linguistic homogeneity. Applying one facet of globalization to solve the problem it has helped to create, University of Tokyo scholars have created an internet database for the storage and documentation of information about endangered languages, a weighty task given that a mere 1,500 of the 6,000 endangered languages have been adequately studied. Meanwhile, the Summer Institute of Linguistics has been translating the Bible into the world's less popular tongues, including many of the languages of Papua New Guinea.

Attempting to correct past negligence in a more formalized manner, during the Seminar on Linguistic Policies held in 1996, UNESCO Director General Federico Mayor Zaragoza issued a call for "a report describing our [linguistic] wealth and explaining the problems affecting languages." In response, the ongoing Report on the Languages of the World was founded to describe, evaluate, and recommend solutions for losses in linguistic diversity by compiling both an extensive survey and a bibliography of extinct and endangered languages. Still gathering opinions and data from experts and various research organizations, the report aims to influence policymakers and public opinion and to spark future language preservation efforts.

While databases, academic symposia, and comprehensive reports are vital steps to language preservation, without innovative measures that engage public attention and garner significant financial support, progress to preserve languages cannot be sustained. However, revitalizing dying languages by increasing the number of their actual everyday speakers can be a danger as well, as the case of Gaelic demonstrates.

Faced with the daunting task of preserving Gaelic in a Scottish population of which less than two percent, or fewer than 50,000 people, spoke Gaelic, the Scottish government initiated a national immersion program among schoolchildren from nursery school onwards.This system of Gaelicmedium education (GME) marks an active departure from its purely academic counterparts. Roughly 55,000 to 60,000 Scottish children have already mastered Gaelic; this intense GME effort received both political and financial support ranging from the powerful position of a minister for Gaelic in the Scottish Parliament to a £13 million budget for the preservation of Gaelic. The Gaelic preservation model is not unique. The Welsh of Wales and the Navajo of Arizona have also used immersion programs in local schools.

In the Welsh case, students from nursery school through college have been studying the disappearing tongue, while the Navajo program has been concentrated primarily in elementary schools.Although these programs have triggered concerns among a group of parents and legislators, they have received strong endorsement from their respective national and state governments.

Such initial successes demonstrate a strong potential for reviving dying languages, but they leave persistent concerns in their wake. Immersion programs, particularly in cases where education is compulsory, raise concerns over the rights of students and their parents to choose their medium of oral expression. Equally pressing is the concern that reviving a dying language will lead to an upsurge of nationalist sentiment. A concerted effort by the government to unite its constituents under their own, unique dialect may foster a powerful and potentially dangerous sense of collective group identity and stronger ties to an historic, national legacy. Though not necessarily a fulcrum for ethnic mobilization, a common language accompanied by a newly-awakened, proud sense of legacy may be an unwelcome addition to a world already ravaged by ethnic strife.

Only by overcoming barriers of apathy, limited resources, and equally limited knowledge will efforts to preserve dying languages prove effective. Scholarly work that can document, discuss, and analyze languages is indisputably important to language preservation, but may ultimately fall short. Nor are targeted policies of instituting languages in schools a panacea; even with adequate financial and public backing, preservation policies at the local level must be carefully examined and have the benefit of their effectiveness weighed against potential costs of eroded student autonomy and ethnic divisiveness.