Elder Speaker issues

William J Poser wjposer at ldc.upenn.edu
Thu Mar 20 06:40:03 UTC 2008

This is a very important issue, which in my experience is virtually
never addressed or even acknowledged, and it isn't restricted to the
elders. Speakers ceased to pass the language on to their children
for a reason, and the factors that motivated them to do this have
not entirely disappeared, even if overt suppression of the language
is no more. Even if effective programs are developed for teaching
the language to children, will the children actually be motivated to
learn it and to use it not only once in a while but in their own homes
with their own children? The fact that minority languages are declining
even in places where there has not been overt suppression, due purely
to the appeal of larger languages like English, means that the
problem is not merely one of overcoming the old forces against the

I don't know the answer to this but have a few suggestions. The first
is that communities need to address this factor. That is, they need to
recognize that it is an issue and discuss what they can do about it.
The second is that they need to acknowledge the full complexity of
the negative forces, that is isn't just the suppression of the language
by the schools in the past but the current problem of larger languages
having greater appeal. The third is that, to some extent, the issues
that people have may be overcome by education. This is relevant to two
aspects that I can think of. One is the viability of bilingualism.
In a great many cases, the reason that parents and grandparents do not
pass the language on is that they believe, correctly, that English or
some other dominant language is the key to a good education and a good job.
This is coupled with the false belief that the kids cannot have both
a good command of English and a good command of their own language.
Education about the societies in which bilingualism and multilingualism
has been the norm and about the psychological studies of bilingualsim
might counteract this.

The other issue on which education might help is the alleged inadequacy
indigenous languages. I suspect that a lot of people have internalized
the belief that their language was primitive, satanic, or at the very
least not adequate for modern purposes. Courses in "language appreciation"
and other means of imparting information about this might help to
overcome this.


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