Monday, July 13, 2009

Saving Endangered Languages

About two years ago, I read Dr. K. David Harrison's book When Languages Die and subsequently posted about it here. Dr. Harrison then suggested that I read a book called Saving Languages, by Lenore A. Grenoble and Lindsay J. Whaley.

It is very interesting to read and think about these two books. Dr. Harrison writes about what happens when we lose a language and Dr. Grenoble and Dr. Whaley write about how we can prevent that from happening, and thus they should be read in that order.

Saving Languages talks about working in a "community-driven, bottom-up" way, which means that it is the people themselves who should decide whether to save their tongue and how, and not the government or other authorities. Dr. Grenoble and Dr. Whaley also give suggestions for how languages can be revitalized.

In their book, they discuss issues of literacy (which is a very important topic, in part since many people are not literate and/or written language is not always prioritized or emphasized, how language policies in countries can affect revitalization (for example, Syria apparently bans the use of Kurdish), attitudes towards language, and the influence of religious groups (Bible translations can be the first or only texts in certain languages or missionaries can be the first foreigners to learn a certain tongue). They also give information on different kinds of revitalization systems, such as total-immersion programs (which they say are the best but are not always possible), partial-immersion or bilingual programs (which they say tend to develop into transitional programs, and they do not advocate this idea), teaching the language as a second language, community-based programs, master-apprentice programs (so elders work with language learners, and this takes place solely in the language to be taught and involves real-life situations and activities, and focuses on oral skills), language-reclamation models (reviving languages that are not longer spoken, and also documenting (though this is not really resuscitating a language, merely recording it, though it helps in reviving a tongue).

In addition, they discuss creating or standardizing a written form of a language, issues of orthography, the usage of different scripts (some groups choose a certain script or other aspects of orthography deliberately to avoid having one like that of the majority language, such as how the Inuit based their alphabet on a Cree one rather than the Roman one, as a way of showing identity, or how Croatian uses the Roman alphabet while Serbian uses Cyrillic). And they give advice for creating a language program, looking into financial, language, and human resources, assessing the vitality of a language, and the needs of the community as well as their attitudes; as well as for avoiding potential problem situations, both internal and external to the community. And Dr. Grenoble and Dr. Whaley use case studies to explore different ways of saving and revitalizing languages.

Dr. Harrison's When Languages Die and Dr. Grenoble and Dr. Whaley's Saving Languages are fascinating books, and I recommend them both.


A.Z.F. said...
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A.Z.F. said...

I must be coming across as a contrariety-addict in these comments. But I tend to have more to say about what I disagree with than about what I agree with.

I honestly tend to lose patience with intellectuals wringing their hands over language death, particularly when their arguments are fraught with double standards and specious reasoning.

Many of those worried about language death will say that it is a language's speakers, not any external authority, which should decide whether the language should be saved. I couldn't agree more. The problem is that many times a language's speakers simply do not care, at least not in sufficient numbers. For example, fewer and fewer Maltese speakers are passing the language on to their children, not because the government is forcing them to, not because kids are being beaten in school for speaking Maltese, but simply because many Maltese (particularly of the upper classes) do not see fit to speak the language to their children. Moreover, Maltese, with all its proverbs, folk songs and typological quirks, is extremely well-documented, so the language's death probably wouldn't rob the world's collective storehouse of knowledge. Nonetheless, if, in a century or two, Maltese is on the verge of extinction as a result of this process, it would surprise me greatly if the relevant scholarly communities didn't wag their proverbial finger at the Maltese government for not preserving an indigenous linguistic treasure.

The same is true of many minority languages in the world today, which are dying simply because their speakers, for one reason or another, no longer see the point. Scolding these communities and the governments under which they thrive for allowing this to happen seems supremely arrogant, and, from a certain perspective, imperialistic. For example, it seems particularly weird to yearn for the return of the sectarianism and enmity whose resolution now causes children to prefer (under no duress) the language of their playmates to that of their parents.

I would ask what gives a community of scholars the right to declare that a language's etymological clues to human development, the revelations it can offer about the nature of human thought and the cultural history it encodes are more the property of scholars than of the language's speakers themselves.

This is all to say nothing of the fact that many language alarmists (such as Daniel Nettle, for one) are working off of a questionably strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and making dubious assumptions about what is, or is not, an actual loss in terms of knowledge or potential for discovery.

For example, Old English had a word "Landsocn" which meant something like "scouting for land on which to build a new settlement after having abandoned the old one." The fact that this word didn't survive into modern English indicates that the word lost its usefulness somewhere along the line. Does this mean that a conceptual distinction was lost? Absolutely. Does it bother me that changes in lifestyle over the centuries made the concept less and less relevant to English speakers' daily lives? Absolutely not.

Moreover, not all minority and/or endangered languages are alike in value or context. If Norway, swept by a fever of linguistic nativism, started using more and more nynorsk till eventually the erstwhile dominant bokmål went extinct, this would not be comparable to the death of Shuadit.

A.Z.F. said...

To take an example from your original post on the book: the fact that tofa mostly now use the Russian which the Soviets forced them to learn isn't the only factor at play in the loss of a word for a specific kind of reindeer. It probably has more to do with the fact that most Tofa now live in urban environments and have little need for words for "reindeer" with such specificity. I suspect that the change in way of life foisted upon the Tofa after the October Revolution had more of an effect than the changing of the language. On the other hand, when a linguistic community has a need for a lexical item to describe a specific concept, they tend not to have any trouble coming up with one, or borrowing one (think of words like "Zeitgeist," "Newbie" and "Sabotage" in English.) If the Tofa needed the old word, they could have simply borrowed it into Russian, in much the way speakers of Scots English and Welsh English make liberal use of Gaelic and Welsh borrowings in conversation with one another generations after their families have ceased to use the ancestral language itself, or the way Castillian Spanish maintained the use of several Arabic loan words long after Arabic ceased to be spoken on the Iberian peninsula.

With very few exceptions, languages tend not to develop in ways that permanently prohibit you from saying what's on your mind. It's one of the reasons why I hate overstating the applicability of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (in either its strong or its weak interpretation) to sociolinguistics

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comments, which are not all that contrary. They are, however, interesting and welcome!

Best wishes,