ELL: Wall Street Journal editorial

Julia Sallabank julia at TORTEVAL.DEMON.CO.UK
Sun Mar 31 13:34:33 UTC 2002

Hello all

I think Claire and Gerd make some very good points. They are useful not only
when arguing with majority langauge promoters, but also with people from
minority speech communities who fall for the idea that language shift will
lead to economic prosperity. And thanks for mentioning Channel Island Norman
French, which I'm studying.

Just one small comment: isn't George W. Bush fluent in Spanish? Or is that
his father?

A la perchoine

Julia Sallabank

----- Original Message -----
From: "Gerd Jendraschek" <jendraschek at hotmail.com>
To: <endangered-languages-l at cleo.murdoch.edu.au>
Sent: Sunday, March 31, 2002 10:18 AM
Subject: Re: ELL: Wall Street Journal editorial

> 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,
> 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
> for investments, economy, science etc. in their country (and they think
> 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
> international business in these countries has experienced how more and
> 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
> 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
> 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
> silent. Unesco calls this an "irretrievable and tragic" development
> "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
> 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
> some kind of "Bad International English", just look at the way I write).
> next thing will be to wait for all religions to get extinct (which one
> 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
> 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
> radical transformation over time. Consider English. It helps to have a
> 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
> >   Because languages evolve, it should come as no surprise that some
> expire.
> We all know that language death is not a new phenomenon, languages have
> always "expired" (Etruscan, Iberian, Hittite etc.). What is new about it,
> 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
> may have been as many as 20,000 languages spoken by a total human
> of perhaps 10 million, roughly 0.0017% of our current world census.
> 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,
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> harmful.
> 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,
> Aranese,
> 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
> 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
> last word italicized]--that is, we in the developed world have much to
> if they in the undeveloped world continue communicating in obscure
> 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
> 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
> oblivious to the reality that most people would rather eat a Big Mac than
> 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
> people continue living in a premodern close-to-nature existence. The
> 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
> 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
> 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
> and the Universal Progress and Eternal Enlightenment Movement still thinks
> that way. It is just a logical consequence that every other way of
> 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
> >This is understandable when about half the world's population speaks one
> 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
> speak at least two languages, and they insist that such bilingualism is a
> key to preserving "diversity." Perhaps, but it sounds better in theory
> it works in practice. Simple verbal exchanges are one thing; communicating
> at high levesl of proficiency is another. If bilingual education in the
> has revealed anything, it is that schools can teach a rudimentary
> 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.
> 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
> 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
> that people can be fully multilingual, so they look for every tiny mistake
> one makes, and attribute it to multilingualism. However, every monolingual
> too
> 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 Smantique
> Universit de Toulouse-Le Mirail
> France
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