ELL: Wall Street Journal editorial

Gerd Jendraschek jendraschek at HOTMAIL.COM
Sun Mar 31 09:18:28 UTC 2002

I tried to post this message some days ago, but it didn't work. So this is
the second try:

This is one more discussion about media reports on endangered languages.
Generally, these reports fall into two classes: those reproducing the
concerned linguists' thoughts (see e.g.
http://www.mg.co.za/mg/news/97sep1/15sep-khoi.html), and those seeing
language death as a step forward to universal progress. Let's be
realistic, most people, and more so in the largely monolingual countries
where most of this list's subscribers live, think that minority languages,
and even their own languages spoken by millions and written for centuries,
are useless in comparison to English (the more generous ones add Mandarin
and Spanish to the list of useful languages). In countries like Germany, the
Netherlands or Scandinavia, many people would be rather happy to see the
national languages (generally not included amongst endangered languages)
gradually replaced by English, as they think that this would be an advantage
for investments, economy, science etc. in their country (and they think that
multilingualism is too tiresome, so "if we have to learn English anyway,
then let's do things properly and use English everywhere"). I have no
statistics at hand, as this question is not openly discussed (there was a
discussion on the Net about "English as an official language in Germany",
[many --German-- participants were arguing in favor of English]
but it is no longer there), but every university member or anyone working in
international business in these countries has experienced how more and more
things are done in English that used to be done in the national languages
just some years ago.

Having this in mind, let's return to the article and discuss some points:

> When Marie Smith-Jones passes away, she will take with her a small but
irreplaceable piece of human culture. That's because the octogenarian
Anchorage resident is the last speaker of Eyak, the traditional language of
her Alaskan tribe. "It's horrible to be alone," she has said.
>   Yet she isn't really alone, at least in the sense of being a lst
speaker. There are many others like her. By one account, a last speaker of
one of the world's 6,000 languages dies every two weeks.
>   To Unesco--the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural
Organization--language extinction is a disaster of, well, unspeakable
proportions. Its new report warns of a "catastrophic reduction in the number
of languages spoken in the world" and estimates 3,000 are "endangered,
seriously endangered, or dying."
>   In other words, children have stopped learning half the world's
languages, and it's only a matter of time before their current speakers fall
silent. Unesco calls this an "irretrievable and tragic" development because
"language diversity" is "one of humanity's most precious commmodities."

So far, everything's fine, the usual complaint about language death!

>   But is it really? Unesco's determined pessimism masks a trend that is
arguably worth celebrating: A growing number of people are speaking a
smaller number of languages, meaning that age-old obstacles to communication
are collapsing. Surely this is a good thing.

Here, the author proposes his "counter-model": A world with few languages,
where the final stage would probably be a monolingual world (monolingual in
some kind of "Bad International English", just look at the way I write). The
next thing will be to wait for all religions to get extinct (which one will
survive?) so that everybody agrees on everything with everybody else, and
there will be everlasting peace!

> 'Egalitarian Multilingualism'
>   Except for those who believe that "diversity" trumps all else. We've
heard claims like this before, in debates over college admissions and snail
darters, and they're often dubious. The chief problem with Unesco's
view--shared by many academic linguists--is its careless embrace of
multiculturalism, or what it labels "egalitarian multilingualism." This
outlook gives short shrift to the interests and choices of people in tiny
languages groups.
>   Languages disappear for all sorts of reasons, not least among them their
radical transformation over time. Consider English. It helps to have a gloss
handy when reading Shakespeare's plays of four centuries ago. Chaucer's
Middle English may be understood only with difficulty. And the Old English
of the Beowulf poet is not only dead but unintelligible to modern speakers.
>   Because languages evolve, it should come as no surprise that some

We all know that language death is not a new phenomenon, languages have
always "expired" (Etruscan, Iberian, Hittite etc.). What is new about it, is
that the total number of languages decreases rapidly.

>Michael Krauss of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks --the leading
expert on the Eyak of Ms. Smith-Jones--believes that 10,000 years ago there
may have been as many as 20,000 languages spoken by a total human population
of perhaps 10 million, roughly 0.0017% of our current world census. Assuming
this is true, it would suggest a connection between more people and fewer
languages, and between language and the technology that lets people
communicate over distance.
>   That makes sense, because geographic isolation is an incubator of
linguistic diversity. A language doesn't require more than a few hundred
people to sustain it, assuming they keep to themselves. The forbidding
terrain of Papua New Guinea is home to the highest concentration of
languages anywhere--at lest 820 different tongues in an area smaller than
Utah and /Wyoming combined.

Right! If a small language wants to survive it needs demographic
concentration of its speakers and some kind of isolation. In other words, it
needs to maintain a linguistic community with strong ties internally and
some kind of sociocultural border towards the outside world.  And in
opposition to the author, I think that's not a bad thing. In many regions of
the world (generally those where nature ressources have survived to some
degree) "tribal" communities live (as far as possible, but if linguists,
anthropologists and TV reporters wouldn't drop in from time to time, we
couldn't discuss about them) in the same way as
they had been living for the last 10 000 years under conditions where most
Westerner would get ill within some weeks. And what is tremendous about it:
They managed to live there without destroying their environment, how could
they do this, most Westerners will ask? The solution cannot be to imitate
those tribal communities (this is what the author is worried about,
defending his wealthy existence against linguists who could force him to
live in the jungle and eat insects.). In most cases, these small communities
have suffered a lot from imposed progress, divided by missionaries that
split them into several religious communities, forced into schools they
don't need there where they live. Tell me who is better off: the dissolved
community living in urban slums, their children not understanding what their
grand-parents say, seeing wealth around them with tiny chances to join the
wealthy, with TV instead of traditions; or those continuing to live in the
same way as their ancestors have been living for milleniums? Progress is a
social concept that should not be imposed where it is useless and even

On the other hand, I think that linguistic communities can merge, in which
case two (or more) languages become one. This is what usually happens when
close varieties are standardized to one supraregional variety. This also
happens where living conditions and the sociocultural environment of two
communities are too close to maintain two distinct linguistic communities,
especially when expectations are high towards a language (example: Basque,
Welsh and Catalan are powerful enough to offer many of the facilities
Spanish or English had been offering: education, media, books, terminology;
Ladino or Channel Island Norman French on the other hand cannot compete on
the same level with languages of widespread diffusion.

>For Unesco, this is a kind of Platonic ideal. Its report describes Papua
New Guinea as "a fitting example for other civilizations to follow."
>   That's an odd thing to say about a country where 99% of the people don't
own a phone, but it's typical of the attitude of the language
preservationists, who apparently would like to see tribal members live in
primivitv e bliss, preserving their exotic customs. A thread runs through
the preservationist arguments suggesting that we can benefit from them [this
last word italicized]--that is, we in the developed world have much to gain
if they in the undeveloped world continue communicating in obscure languages
we don't bother to learn ourselves.

This opposition is incorrect. Parts of this 'undevelopped' world work much
the same as the Western World does, most capitals all over the planet having
financial markets, banks, shopping malls, restaurants, Mc Donald's etc...
What is different is that outside urban areas, many people managed to live
in a more traditional way in those countires. It would be dangerous to
imitate one another: if the rest of the world had been successful in
imitating Western life style, this planet would have collapsed already!
Everyone has different problems and must find different solutions,
benefitting from his own cultural background.

>   David Crystal makes the point unwittingly in his book "Language Death"
when he describes an Australian aboriginal language "whose vocabulary
provides different names for grubs (an important food source) according to
the types of bush where they are found." He's trying to say that we may
learn about biology if we preserve and study obscure languages--but he seems
oblivious to the reality that most people would rather eat a Big Mac than a
fistful of bettle larvae.
>   Many linguists are deadly serious about he biological connection; they
would like nothing better than to join forces with environmentalists. In
"Vanishing Voices," Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine even write of
"biolinguistic diversity," which they define as "the rich spectrum of life
encompassing all the earth's species of plants and animsl along with human
cultures and their languages." This invention allows them to suggest that
"the next great step in scientific development may lie locked up in some
obscure languages in a distant rainforest."
> Forced Dissimilation
>   Then again, it may not--and the only way to find out requires that some
people continue living in a premodern close-to-nature existence. The Unesco
report and linguists everywhere say that governmental policies of forced
assimiliation have contributed mightily to language extinction, and they
certainly have a point. But what they're endorsing now is a kind of forced
dissimilation, in the hope, apparently, that a cure for cancer will one day
find expression in an Amazonian dialect.

The point is clear: English is Progress, and Amazonian "dialects" (the
never-ending story about "true" languages vs. "unwritten" dialects) are
"premodern". As a consequence, let's teach the Amazonians English and give
them all scholarships for US universities, so that they can find a "cure for
cancer". To be frank, this point of view is totalitarian. Powerful
communities always make the mistake to think that everyone else would be
happy to join them, as they are the only ones in possession of wisdom.
Religious fundamentalists think that way, Communists used to think that way
and the Universal Progress and Eternal Enlightenment Movement still thinks
that way. It is just a logical consequence that every other way of thinking
is useless and deserves nothing but to "expire".

>   That's the fundamental mistake of the Unesco report. "Linguistic
diversity is an invaluable asset and resource rather than an obstacle to
progress," it claims. Yet the most important reason some languages are
disappearing is precisely that their native speakers don't regard them as
quite so precious. They view linguistic adaptation--especially for their
kids--as key to getting ahead.

After the sociocultural fundaments of their own linguistic community had
been destroyed, it is not surprising that they start looking for a new one!

>This is understandable when about half the world's population speaks one of
only 10 languages and when speaking English in particular is a profitable
skill. Nowadays, the difference between knowing a lingua franca and an
obscure language is the difference between performing algorithms on a
computer and counting with your fingers.

Once again: would algorithms and computers for Amazonians really be the
solution against the destruction of the rain forest?

>   Linguists say that about half the world's population is already able to
speak at least two languages, and they insist that such bilingualism is a
key to preserving "diversity." Perhaps, but it sounds better in theory than
it works in practice. Simple verbal exchanges are one thing; communicating
at high levesl of proficiency is another. If bilingual education in the U.S.
has revealed anything, it is that schools can teach a rudimentary knowledge
of two languages to students while leaving them fluent in neither.

Obviously, the author is monolingual and repeats prejudices about
bilinguals. We all know bilinguals that are imperfect in both languages. But
I hope we've all met people that manage two or more languages quite well.
The first group has learnt two languages, each of them imperfectly, which is
not surprising considering the living conditions of immigrants. The second
group has learnt two languages, separately with enough input of a quality
that allowed them to become proficient in both. Monolinguals cannot believe
that people can be fully multilingual, so they look for every tiny mistake
one makes, and attribute it to multilingualism. However, every monolingual
makes mistakes or disagrees with other native speakers about what is
correct, and some monolinguals have big problems mastering their native
language (a good example could be George W. Bush, but let's not make
political statements here)

This was quite long, but I think this is what the list should be -- a
discussion group.

Looking foreward to reading your reactions


Equipe de Recherche en Syntaxe et SÈmantique
UniversitÈ de Toulouse-Le Mirail

Endangered-Languages-L Forum: endangered-languages-l at cleo.murdoch.edu.au
Web pages http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/lists/endangered-languages-l/
Subscribe/unsubscribe and other commands: majordomo at cleo.murdoch.edu.au

More information about the Endangered-languages-l mailing list