Article from The New Republic online

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Feb 23 19:44:27 UTC 2005

Anyone want to write a response to Mr. Easterbrook?

February 23, 2005
Word Perfect
by Gregg Easterbrook

Obviously it is interesting to know that sjonvarp is the Faroese word for
television or that tl'imshya'isita'itlma is the Nootka word for inviting
many people to a feast. More important, it is good that scholars are
paying increasing attention to study of the world's estimated 6,000
tongues. It is a positive development that indigenous languages, once
actively repressed by colonialists, are now being encouraged in many
settings. For instance the University of Hawaii once downplayed
Hawaiian-language studies; in 2002, Hiapo Perreira became the first person
to graduate from the university with a master's in Hawaiian, and his
master's is believed to represent the first indigenous-language
postgraduate degree conferred in the United States. But should we care
that many languages are dying out in daily use? No. The sooner languages
die out, the better.

Estimates vary, but the standard projection is that about two dozen
conversational languages die out each year; see the 2003 book Spoken Here:
Travels Among Threatened Languages, by Mark Abley. According to this
article, the last speaker of Jiwalri, an Australian bush language, died in
1976, taking the tongue with him. Fewer than 1,000 people today are
thought to use Comanche as their daily language, meaning its chances of
survival are slim. Recent years have seen an increase in claims that there
is something worrisome, even something terrible, about a decline in the
number of languages in everyday use. This 2000 article in a UNESCO
publication called for "international action" to protect declining
languages, especially aboriginal ones. Here, the Foundation for Endangered
Languages proposes that there are "linguistic rights."

Those who believe the disappearance of local languages is a problem no
doubt chaffed last week when The New York Times ran this article, by James
Brooke, reporting that Mongolia now discourages use of local languages and
has a national goal of teaching all public-school students English.
Brooke's story reports, "'I need 2,000 English teachers,' said Puntsag
Tsagaan, Mongolia's minister of education, culture and science." Other
developing-world countries are beginning to emphasize English-language
education. This is strongly in the economic interest of developing world

The world will be a better place as rare languages go out of usage. The
fewer the tongues, the more easily societies communicate. Languages are
barriers to trust and understanding. Even in well-off places with few
social problems, language barriers create mistrust: Think of Quebec or
Belgium. In places that aren't well-off, language arguments are a huge
obstacle to social progress. Thus the fewer languages, the better--and I
say this not just because English may win the competition. Mandarin might
win; Barbara Wallraff of The Atlantic Monthly devoted a lengthy 2001 story
to the idea that Mandarin will best English in the struggle to be the
global tongue. Okay, maybe Mandarin comes out on top. As long as the
number of languages in common usage keeps declining, I'll be happy.

People who romanticize indigenous languages usually, themselves, achieved
comfortable positions in life by speaking and writing one of the top ten
tongues and by living in a society that has single-language cohesion. A
person who communicates only in a rare language--especially a spoken-only
dialect that cannot be written--is at a huge disadvantage in anything
other than an isolated community. Why is Singapore so much more affluent
than its neighbors? In part owing to a long-standing policy of teaching
public-school students English. Someone safely tenured in a comfortable
Western university might idealize living a subsistence lifestyle speaking
a rare language unintelligible except to one's tribe. For citizens of the
developing world, speaking a top ten language opens doors to a better

Multiple languages arose because throughout history, many groups of people
lived in isolation, interacting only with others like themselves. Through
the last century, all or almost all isolated tribal groups have been
found. Maybe there's still some small society in Amazonia that has not
been contacted, but the number of men and women living without contact
with the world surely now must be a tiny percentage of the human
population. Loss of rare languages accompanies the integration of isolated
groups into the larger world. Daily, the world gets more global, and the
process appears irreversible. Languages would be expected to disappear as
societies become global. They need to disappear, in order to allow people
to communicate in an interconnected world.

The sentiment that there's something terrible about languages going
extinct confuses biodiversity with cultural diversity. When a rare species
dies out, it's gone forever; when a rare language dies out, the culture it
served can continue, just in some other tongue. It is estimated, for
example, that 540 indigenous languages have been lost in Brazil since the
Portuguese arrived. Yet the ancient culture of Brazil has not been lost;
it now expresses itself in Portuguese. At the same time, almost any
citizen of Brazil can talk to almost any other, as they share a common
language. That's better than when there were 540 tongues preventing

Even if languages such as Comanche pass from daily use, scholars might
continue to study them. Latin has not been a quotidian tongue in a
millennium yet is still studied. Languages that are only spoken and cannot
be written are another matter; when the last speakers die, these languages
are gone. But the loss of minor languages spoken by isolated groups of
people seems a small price to pay for improved communication for
everybody. And of course if members of a small-language culture want to
work to keep their tongue in use, that's great, so long as they know a
major language as well. Hawaii may become a good test case. For at least a
century, mainlanders discouraged the Hawaiian tongue. Now Hawaiian is
making a comeback. If people in the state know both English and Hawaiian,
fantastic. If Hawaiian speakers start to demand special privileges and
exemptions, only ill can come of that.

As globalism puts languages out of use, digital technology may provide a
counterweight by keeping alive many languages that otherwise would
expire--computers are good at remembering details and becoming good at
remembering speech. And some forms of technology may make it easier for
the world to accommodate large numbers of languages and still communicate.
Microsoft, for instance, is translating Windows into Quechua, an
indigenous language still used in Andean nations. If translation becomes
ever easier, language barriers may mean less.

Overall, though, the consolidation of language seems a positive trend.
Having a few widely agreed upon international languages is good for
everyone. Losing rare languages seems a minor problem at worst. The more
people who speak English or Mandarin, the better.

Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor at TNR and a visiting fellow at the
Brookings Institution.

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