ELL: Wall Street Journal editorial

Gerd Jendraschek jendraschek at HOTMAIL.COM
Sun Mar 31 10:46:18 UTC 2002

When discussing the fate of minority languages, we should beware of
confusing uncomparable cases. Though one often finds statements along the
following lines:

-- When asked what can be done to protect or even promote minority
languages, cases like Finnish, Flemish, Turkish, Basque, Welsh etc. are
quoted as examples of language modernization through corpus and status

-- The next step consists in the proposal to apply these efforts to any
endangered minority language.

The fundamental mistake is to compare quite different linguistic
communities. The "positive examples" are mostly taken from the Western
World, where the fact of speaking a lesser used language doesn't mean to
have no access to academic knowledge. The above-mentioned communities are
all among the Top 200 in terms of speaker population, in other words among
the 3% of languages with more than 200 000 speakers. However the majority of
languages are spoken by fewer than 10 000 people. I would guess that there
are more people working actively for the promotion of Basque than most
communities have speakers. All these quoted "positive examples" have made
enormous organizational and financial efforts to promote their language.
However, we know that the regions of the world with high language density
are regions like Papua New Guinea, India or Subsaharian Africa. Communities
living there won't be able to have language normalization Academies,
terminology institutes and so forth. This does not mean that the situation
is desperate, but it means that efforts to help these languages to survive
can hardly be inspired by cases in the North/West. You can modernize and
standardize Turkish, Dutch, Welsh or Basque, put the language on the
Internet, give university courses in natural sciences in these languages and
similar activities that make look the language modern, or more precisely:
the members of the community themselves can do that. Their demographic and
economic power enables them to do so. Communities of some thousand speakers
in poor countries can never do this kind of work, even if they are trained
by linguists. Efforts must be much more modest there, and what is most
important: Welsh and Basque speakers are fully integrated into the Western
World, it does not matter which language they speak. They can speak Basque
or Welsh AND still take part in global activities. This seems impossible for
the majority of small communities. The solution should rather be the other
way round: Protecting or revitalizing traditional culture and traditional
ways of life is a prerequisite for protecting and revitalizing the language.
In what way Australian indigenous people benefitted from trying to imitate
Western life style? They would be better off now if they had ignored the
white immigrants (well, they had no choice, you will answer, as the White
didn't ignore THEM). The US and Australia are quite good examples to show
that forced assimilation is IMPOSSIBLE. A language is spoken as long as the
language community exists. A language community exists as long as its
members share fundamental sociocultural knowledge. If this knowledge is
promoted and considered as useful, people will be interested in speaking the
language expressing this knowledge. If this sociocultural knowledge is
devaluated, considered as useless, people will loose interest in speaking
the language. When the language is no more taught to children, this means
that the language community is already dissolved.


Equipe de Recherche en Syntaxe et Sémantique
Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail

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