Languages that are lost in time (fwd)

Don Osborn dzo at BISHARAT.NET
Sun Nov 23 05:45:18 UTC 2003

This phrase ...

> "A few old people use a few words on occasions such as greetings and
> ceremonies, but younger people only hear a handful of words."

... reminds me of some discussions about parental (and larger family)
approaches to educating children in multilingual settings (generally
involving more widely spoken languages).  It is common for parents of
different cultures to educate their children in the languages of both, and
there are approaches (e.g., one parent, one language) and even support
groups to make that work. But the same approaches are apparently not widely
known or practiced in communities where less widely spoken languages are
involved - with the possible exception of Europe.  Or am I mistaken?

In much of Africa, it is taken for granted that kids will pick up languages,
and in the cases where parents focus on the language issue, my semi-informed
impression is that they are as likely to adopt a one-language approach
(focusing say on English or French, with the idea this would benefit their
children) as anything else. And I know of some African parents abroad who
effectively abandon their maternal language in the family.  This makes me
wonder about educating parents on how kids learn languages and the benefits
of a thought-out approach to their children's multilingual learning.

In the case of less-spoken languages, has there been any effort to encourage
those in a community who speak the mother tongue to focus on using it with
the young people on a day to day basis?  If all kids hear as they grow up is
a smattering of words in greetings and ceremonies, then of course the
language will be lost (regardless what we do with technology). There are
certainly cultural factors and education policy issues involved, and I
haven't really researched this, but I still wonder if techniques used by
multilingual families could not be adapted to and more systematically used
in minority language communities.

Beyond that I had another thought regarding language strategies and that is
the comparative difficulties for minority languages in dominant monolingual
cultures as opposed to mutlilingual cultures.  In the latter people expect
to speak and hear more than one language frequently if not daily, so I
wonder if the environment is more favorable to ongoing use of maternal
languages.  (Again this is an area I have not researched personally but
thought about from the viewpoint of training Peace Corps volunteers from
mostly monolingual backgrounds in the US for living in multilingual Africa.)
Of course you can't change the larger social milieu but maybe one missing
part of strategies to language in less-spoken language communities is
creating this multilingual mindset - in this case that the mother tongue and
the dominant language can coexist in the community, and that one can learn
both well, switch between them according to context and expressiveness, and
be at least as well off if not better than if all one spoke was the dominant

Sorry if some of this is obvious to the rest of you - there are aspects of
the field I am still catching up with.  Any comments welcome.

Don Osborn

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