Of multilingualism & common causes (Re: Saving Darma...)

Don Osborn dzo at BISHARAT.NET
Sat Jan 24 08:39:49 UTC 2004

Good point, Matthew.  The effect is more complex, of course, with in some
places less-spoken indigenous tongues losing ground to more widely spoken
ones (spread of Hausa in parts of Nigeria, Bambara in Mali, Wolof in
Senegal).  It's hard to say what is inevitable or avoidable in these
dynamics. What kind of strategies could favor people's retention of maternal
languages during the current generation and passing it on to the next?  What
kind of alliances to achieve that?

The notion that each person learn three languages (put forth by, perhaps
among others, a past senior UNESCO official) would be a framework for that
in the ideal world - i.e., mother tongue, regional or official language,
international lingua franca - but that would require a lot of time, effort,
and resources on individual and collective levels (though creative use of
new technologies could facilitate unifying themes and potentially have a big
impact at lower cost). In any event, although it would certainly be a better
set of preoccupations for communities and nations than building car bombs or
smart bombs, it is hard to see that happening.

Another proposal that in effect everyone learn two languages - maternal and
auxiliary - would in theory be a lot easier, but would imply some difficult
choices: either regional languages cede their role to maternal languages on
one hand & an international lingua franca on the other, or indigenous
languages would cease to function as maternal languages with more widely
spoken languages or linguae francae assuming the role of maternal languages
(which has happened in the case of Swahili in parts of Tanzania).

Both of these proposals are of course simplified abstractions.  The reality,
gets a lot more complex, as illustrated by the article Phil forwarded about
the linguistically mixed couples in India. The background of effects of mass
media, role of new technologies, economic & cultural penetration, and even
changes within dominant languages, are among the other factors.  But one
element emerges at least in my mind that people making common cause about
indigenous/maternal languages would do well to consider more: that of an
international auxiliary language.

It is easy to dismiss as utopian the efforts of Ludwig Zamenhof (creator of
Esperanto) and various others that one French book title uncharitably dubbed
"Les fous de langue" [crazy ones of language], but - without intending to
plead the cause of constructed language (let alone any of those proposed) -
I do think that the spread of use of English demonstrates an organic need of
humanity at this time in its history for some kind of international second
language. And where "les fous de langue" were right on is that we do have a
choice in this matter.

What does this have to do with indigenous language?  Two things.  First, the
dynamic & choices relating to language internationally need to be
understood.  Obviously things cannot go back to the way they were
linguistically (even if we wanted that), but the manifold process of
globalization can end up with different outcomes.  I've been given to think
that existence of a de jure (as opposed to de facto/default) international
auxiliary language could preserve space for indigenous/maternal languages.
It probably is more complex than that, but one could work towards that end -
recognizing both humanity's unavoidable need at this time for a common
language and the unacceptably high cost of loss of its maternal languages.
the possibility that what might seem on the face of it to be opposites are
actually natural allies.

Second, there are many sensible and committed people interested in the topic
of an international language, some of whom are decicated to particular
outcomes (such as Esperanto, which by way of disclaimer I respect but am not
part of).  Let me hasten to add that the idea of an international language
does *not* presuppose an invented one, although in theory at least that is
one possibility. In any event, what would be the possibility of
communicating more with communities interested one way or another in the
principle of an international auxiliary language?  There is/was an effort in
this direction among some NGOs represented at the UN in the form of a
"Coalition for an International Auxiliary Language" (CIAL) that also is
concerned with "Linguistic Human Rights and Democracy in Communication"; see
http://www.geocities.com/ueango/ .

If the "common cause" is found in preserving or even revitalizing maternal
languages of indigenous and minority peoples, that is compelling; but if the
cause is for a world where people would both have their language of heritage
(i.e., encompassing the forementioned) and a chosen common world tongue for
communication, understanding, and cultural and commercial exchange, that
could be transforming.

I realize this strays a bit from the main group purpose, so I'll leave the
issue there unless others want to take it up (perhaps offline).


----- Original Message -----
From: "Matthew Ward" <mward at LUNA.CC.NM.US>
Sent: Friday, January 23, 2004 12:01 AM
Subject: Re: Saving Darma (fwd - long article)

> It's interesting how similar many of of stories in these articles are:
>  large languages like Hindi, Russian, Spanish, Indonesian, English and
> French swallowing smaller ones. But, if there is a silver lining, it is
> that with common issues, you can find common cause.

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