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Language Extinction

In: English and Literature

Submitted By ElCuento
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In recognising the value of individual languages we acknowledge the dignity and worth of our fellow human beings. – Desmond Tutu (Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights Follow-up Committee. April, 1998)

It all began with the steam engine. The industrial revolution, which kicked off in late 18th Century set off a series of rapid improvements in technology, which provided us with mass transit and mass communications. Many places that were once exotic realms barely set upon, became multi million dollar wellness centres for exhausted western tourists, complete with western television, McDonalds outlets and internet cafes. Professor Austin’s quote rightly alludes to the fact that the developments of modern technology over the past century have been a major factor in permanently concentrating the world closer together, a place where cultures bleed into one another. And it is having a dramatic effect on the number of languages.

If means are not devised to stop it, half of the worlds 7000 odd languages that are spoken today will disappear within the next couple of generations. (SBS, 2013). This will also correspond to the loss of half of the world’s cultural wealth and ancestral knowledge. I will discuss the reasons why language diversity is important, and the challenges that are presented to it by contemporary society.

Language is the most important tool we as humans have at our disposal. It is the means by which we learn, and the means by which we teach. It provides us with the only vehicle to express our feelings, articulate our ideas and collaborate. Human language itself is remarkably unique in the context of the natural world. We are the only creature that both speaks and writes and the only creature with the power of recursive thought, which in layman’s terms allows the ability for us to recall past episodes and imagine ourselves in future ones, as well having the ability to think about thinking. (Corballis 2011, preface xi).

Language is a crucial element of our personal identity, which also includes traits of gender, race, class, and sexuality. Our right to an individual language is on par with any other of the key human rights we take as assumed. As we make great strides against intolerance gender, race or sexuality based discrimination, could we argue that an attack on a language should be treated in the same way as an attack on any other element of personal identity? Identity is also about internal recognition of cultural belonging according to (Nunan, Choi 2010, p.3) and is akin to the most fundamental of family instincts we have within us.

Importantly, language has been shown to strongly influence our worldview and therefore our culture. Modern studies based on the Samir Whorf hypothesis provide evidence that we think or behave differently as a result of the different languages we speak. This has been shown to be the case especially in spatial cognition, our social use of language and even in how we perceive colour! (Phelps, K 2012)

Historically, most instances of endangerment or extinction of language have been by force, such as those seen in the wake of Spanish colonialism from the 16th Century. One current example is that of the Kurdish people in modern Turkey. Successive Governments over the past century have viewed the attempts of the Kurdish people to maintain their language as a threat to Turkish national identity (Wee, 2011, p.8) Laws at various times across this period have included bans on studying, reading or speaking in Kurdish. Other bans have included bans on Kurdish place names, print publishing, radio or television produced in Kurdish, wearing of traditional Kurdish clothes, playing or selling Kurdish music, and people have been subject to forced migration out of existing Kurdish areas. (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1994, pp.347, 353).

In most contemporary examples, loss of diversity is due to economic globalisation. English has become the defacto global language of business and diplomacy, and without fluency entire cultures now get left behind in the world trade economy. In response this very issue, the Vietnamese Government has taken swift action through policy to ensure that by 2020 all school leavers have a basic standard of conversational English education under their belt. This they hope will improve relationships with regional trading partners and drive forward the modernisation of Vietnam's economy. (Parks, 2011). As a result, the outlook is very poor for the identity, worldview and sense of belonging of the speakers of Vietnam’s 43 threatened and endangered languages (Lewis, M.Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D.Fennig, 2013). Will the result be complete loss of the cultural knowledge that is unique amongst these groups ?

On an international scale, Globalisation and the internet has resulted in a gradual but documented homogenisation of languages and culture. The notion of ‘Digital Language Death’ has recently gathered pace with findings in a study that only 5% of world languages are in any form of use online. (Kornai, 2013) When we correspond this with the rapid increase in world internet usage for commerce, things look concerning. Among the first signs of a dying language is that the speakers of it start using languages that are more dominant when in trade and commercial situations (Bloomfield, 1927, p 432-439).

In line with these global threats, the linguistic rights movement has gathered momentum over the past twenty years. The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights is a key document signed by a host of non-Government organisations in 1996 to support Linguistic rights. It was deemed worthy of support from the likes of Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Noam Chomsky and Desmond Tutu among scores of others. Unfortunately, this has not yet translated to a global treaty designed to protect language diversity. As we have covered, language rights are intimately linked with other human rights, and should absolutely deserve equal billing with other social and cultural rights in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

In final response to the essay question and quote, it is critical in the face of overwhelming technological change that we move to protect endangered languages and maintain language diversity. Without language diversity, we lose diversity of ideas including political, social, historical ideas. In other instances where language is suppressed by a political force as in Turkey, we need to acknowledge a breach of basic human rights and see action in accordance with other similar human rights violations. The internet – though seemingly the enemy of language diversity - should be used as a tool to our advantage, to document languages and associated cultures now, and use the web’s potential as a vast virtual library to promote this bountiful information.

References

Linguicide: How Dying Languages Kill Multiculturalism,2013, Video recording, Andy Park, 21st March retrieved 7th December

Corbalis, M 2011, The Recursive Mind: The origins of human language, thought and civilisation, Princeton University Press

Parks, E 2011, Vietnam demands English teaching ‘miracle’ retrieved 29th November 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/education/2011/nov/08/vietnam-unrealistic-english-teaching-goals

Nunan, D, Choi, J 2010, Language and Culture, Reflective Narratives and the Emergence of Identity, Routledge, New York

Phelps, K 2012 Can language affect the way we think?, University of Colorado, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience
Retrieved 1st December 2013, http://psych.colorado.edu/~mollison/class/psyc2145/lectures/linguisticRelativity.pdf

Wee, L 2011, Language Without Rights, OUP, USA

Skuttnabb-Kangas, T, Bucak, S 1994 Linguistic Human Rights: Overcoming Linguistic Discrimination, Walter de Gruyter & Co, Berlin

Lewis, M.Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D.Fennig (eds.), 2013, Ethnologue:Languages of the World, Seventeenth edition

Kornai, A 2013, Digital Language Death, PLOS, retrieved 7th December 2013 http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0077056#abstract0

Bloomfield L 1927 Literate and illiterate speech. American speech Volume 2: 432–439

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