Monday, December 9, 2013

SAving Endangered Languages

(This article appeared in the November Senior Times)

What we lose when we lose a language


Howard Richler

The adjective “endangered” is usually twinned with the noun “species” as the onslaught of civilization has brought about a diminution in the planet's biodiversity.

But not only are many species on the verge of extinction, many languages are teetering towards oblivion. Of the approximately 7000 languages spoken on our planet, it is estimated that anywhere from 50% to 90% will not survive the end of the century. So whereas the largest 80 to 100 languages in the world such as English, Chinese, Urdu and French are spoken by 4.5 billion people, there are around 3500 languages whose total number of speakers equals no more than ten million; an average of less than 3000 speakers each. Generally speaking a language is regarded as secure if it has over 100,000 speakers. However, many of the languages spoken today are on the abyss of extinction having fewer than 100 speakers.

Not surprisingly, many of the native languages in Canada fall into the endangered camp. Only Cree, Ojibway ans Inuktikut are regarded as relatively secure. In many of the 53 Canadian aboriginal languages, more than half of the population can't communicate at all in their mother tongue and fluency declines drastically among the youth of the tribe. Hilda Nicholson, a spokesperson for the Mohawk band of Kahnawake, told me that the fluency rate in the 65 year and older category was around 75%, but in the 6-15 age group, this rate drops to under 20% So, there is a clear sign when a language is in danger. Parents stop teaching it to children and children stop wanting to learn the language of their ancestors. Unfortunately, the obvious role of schools is limited no matter how great the effort of the school program, the ultimate fate of the language is determined by whether it is used on a daily basis in casual conversation.

So, why should we care? Several things are lost when we lose languages. First, we lose cultural knowledge. Since there are around only 200 written languages, when a non-written language vanishes we lose the beliefs and stories that may provide insights into our humanity. These oral histories could possibly inspire us by providing a new way to perceive the world.

More concretely, the loss of languages is also a loss for science because a language represents an adaptive technology. For example, the Inuit language possesses approximately 100 words for sea ice and this instructs one about complexities not generally known in other languages. According to Mark Pagel, a biomathematician at Oxford, different languages have “particular habits of mind” and learning a specific language can possibly alter the brain. For example, Pagel interprets the inability of Japanese adults to differentiate between “la” and “ra” sounds as meaning that on a physiological level there may be brain distinctions based on language.

The difference, however, between Japanese and English pales compared to some nuances we find in other languages. For example, it was once assumed that certain sentence structures were not possible. So while one can say “I will eat this kangaroo” it was believed that in no langauge would some rational person utter “This will eat kangaroo I.” But then linguists “discovered” the Waripiri of the Australian Outback. Not only do tribesmen state in Waripiri, “This will eat kangaroo I.” They also say “Kangaroo will this eat I” and “Eat will kangaroo this I.” By observing which rules hold and which do not (e.g., “will” always comes in the second position in the sentence), linguists have been better able to set parameters for universal grammar. But in order to test and refine universal grammar, linguists require a myriad of examples from the grammars of diverse languages. Unfortunately, until recently the data base has been shrinking drastically.

“Until recently” is used in the last sentence because hope is on the horizon. This year Google introduced the “Endangered Languages Project,” (ELP) a website that allows people and organizations involved in language preservation to find and share the most current and comprehensive information about endangered languages. With ELP, Google provides its technology and vast storage capacity to create a headquarters where data can be shared in a variety of forms, such as text, audio and video files.

Howard's latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.

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