Book notice: Language Diversity in the Pacific

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Aug 11 12:46:05 UTC 2006

Forwarded from Linguist-List,
Date: 04-Aug-2006

Language Diversity in the Pacific
SUBTITLE: Endangerment and Survival
SERIES: Multilingual Matters 134, 2006

Picus Sizhi Ding, Macao Polytechnic Institute


Sponsored by the UNESCO, this anthology consists of 14 chapters from 20
contributors, most of whom are experts in endangered languages of the
greater Pacific region (roughly, Australia/Oceania plus Southeast Asia).
The book starts with a Foreword (pp. ix-xi) by Flix Mart, who highlights
the orientation of the volume towards the future in its approach to
language endangerment and survival. A brief background of all contributors
is provided at the end of the book.

Chapter one, Language Diversity in the Pacific (pp. 1-14)

D. E. Ingram presents an overview of the 13 papers in the volume, which he
groups into three broad parts: (a) language identification and data
collection (chapters 2-5), (b) description on the state and use of
languages in specific regions (chapters 6-11), and practical issues in
language revival, maintenance and education (chapters 12-14).

Chapter two, World Languages Review (pp. 15-23)

Andoni Barrea, Itziar Idiazabal, Patxi Juaristi, Carme Junyent, Paul
Ortega and Belen Uranga report findings from the World Languages Review
project, which dates back to the late 1990s. Using questionnaires, the
project has access to 725 different languages. According to data from 525
questionnaires, 37% of the languages did not have any official status; 43%
of languages were not transmitted within the family on a regular basis;
the most cited reason for language endangerment (39.7%) was economic or
cultural subordination; and 33% of the languages were not used in
education at all.

Chapter three, Naming Languages, Drawing Language Boundaries and
Maintaining Languages with Special Reference to the Linguistic Situation
in Papua New Guinea (pp. 24-39)

As suggested by the title, Peter Mhlhusler deals with some thorny problems
such as what is or is not a language and how a language should be named in
Papua New Guinea, which is estimated to have 700 ~ 846 languages. The
number of languages in Papua New Guinea is uncertain because the western
nation-based notion of language is difficult to apply. The chapter also
offers indigenous views on language as well as arguments for maintaining

Chapter four, Obstacles to Creating an Inventory of Languages in Indonesia
(pp.  40-53)

Multamia R.M.T. Lauder reports problems found in the project Research on
Cognates and Mapping of Regional Languages in Indonesia undertaken by the
Indonesian National Language Centre. Major difficulties include the lack
or inaccessibility of reliable information on isolated tribes in
Indonesia.  Government departments are of little help to the research team
and to isolated tribes. With the assumption that modernization would be
embraced by all, the government has inadeptly run resettlement programs,
which are rejected after trials by some tribes.

Chapter five, Keeping Track of Indigenous Language Endangerment in
Australia (pp. 54-84)

Patrick McConvell and Nicholas Thieberger present a case of progress in
understanding the recent situation of indigenous languages in Australia.
The advancement was made when the Australian State of the Environment
included 'indigenous languages' as a category in its study in 1996. The
chapter describes in detail regional patterns of language shift in
Aboriginal languages and proposes using age groups data on speakers
collected in the national census to gauge the degree of endangerment. The
endangerment index distinguishes five stages of a language: Strong (with
speakers from all ages), Endangered (less than 70% of speakers in the age
group 5-19), Seriously endangered (a further decline with less than 70% of
speakers in the age group 20-39), Critical (a further decline with less
than 70% of speakers in the age group 40-59), and Terminal (without

Chapter six, Papua New Guinea's Languages: Will They Survive? (pp. 85-96)

As a native speaker of a Papua New Guinean language, Kenneth Sumbuk's
account of the linguistic situation in this island country is based on
both personal experience and professional study. He points out (p.87) that
''the number of speakers of a language does not tell us much about the
language's future survival''. He identified 5 main factors that will
affect the future of languages in Papua New Guinea: technology, lack of
documentation, economic globalization, lack of education in indigenous
languages, and lack of socio-political and economic rights of the
indigenous peoples.

Chapter seven, Language Endangerment and Globalization in the Pacific (pp.

Darrell Tryon starts the chapter with a clear definition for the Pacific
region, which covers all islands on the Pacific Ocean including New
Zealand and New Guinea (but not those of Southeast Asia). Focusing on
Austronesian languages, he describes their grouping and the diaspora of
their speakers in developed countries. Echoing the insignificance of small
number of speakers to language threat, he considers urbanization, access
to education, and marriages between speakers of different languages to be
the major factors that impinge on language endangerment.

Chapter eight, Endangered Languages of China and South-East Asia (pp.

Moving beyond Australia/Oceania, David Bradley comments on language
endangerment in mainland Southeast Asia and China. The cursory survey of
the linguistic situation in seven countries should be read in the context
that this vast region is largely out of reach to foreign linguists for
fieldwork in remote areas where diverse languages are spoken.

Chapter nine, On the Edge of the Pacific: Indonesia and East Timor (pp.

John Hajek surveys languages in Indonesia and East Timor. While many
languages with a small number (<500) of speakers are in critical
endangerment, census results of Indonesia indicate a rapid language shift
to Indonesian between 1970 and 1990. Under the vigorous promotion of
Indonesian as the national language, other languages, even those with
millions of speakers, have found themselves in an increasingly threatened

Chapter ten, The Future of the Languages of Vanuatu and New Caledonia (pp.

Jean-Michel Charpentier focuses on two Melanesian groups of islands. With
support from religious, political and international organizations, Vanuatu
has attempted to maintain its linguistic diversity since independence. The
limited achievement demonstrates just how daunting the enterprise of
preserving the linguistic heritage can be.

Chapter eleven, Trends and Shifts in Community Language Use in Australia,
1986-1996 (pp. 137-161)

Michael Clyne and Sandra Kipp look at a less studied aspect of the
linguistic wealth of Australia: community languages introduced by
immigrants. Using data from the census, they find that the shift from a
community language to English is affected by such factors as concentration
of communities, cultural views on language, cultural distance to English,
and exogamy, etc.

Chapter twelve, Directions for Linguistic Research (pp. 162-179)

Rob Amery discusses the need to forge partnerships with indigenous
communities in keeping their languages alive and relevant to the modern
world. He points out that descriptive grammars can be of use in language
revival programs, but documenting an indigenous language merely within
traditional domains will not help it to function well in the modern times.
Thus linguists should provide necessary assistance in creating new words,
instead of borrowing from English, for the language to be used in the
medical, technological, and scientific domains, etc.

Chapter thirteen, The Contribution of Language Education to the
Maintenance and Development of Australia's Language Resources (pp.

D. E. Ingram addresses the role of language education in maintaining
linguistic diversity in Australia, for both indigenous and community
languages. His discussion covers such practical issues as languages in
industry, language teacher quality and supply, design of language
programs, attitudes to language, language rights, and the role of English,

Chapter fourteen, Globalization, Languages and Technology (pp. 196-211)

Placing languages against the background of the Information Age, Denis
Cunningham highlights the stark contrast between the 'haves' and the
'have-nots'. He urges immediate action to be taken to make technology such
as the Internet available to speakers of indigenous languages so that more
languages can find their presence in the cyberspace.


Reports and studies on the linguistic situation in a number of countries
in this volume are informative and thought provoking, which represents the
state of the art of language use and endangerment in the greater Pacific
region. The weight of contribution appears to have tilted to languages in
Australia as opposed to languages of the Pacific islands. The four
chapters on languages in Australia are detailed in depth and wide in
scope, addressing not only indigenous but also community languages.
Although there are also four chapters on the Pacific islands (two on
languages of Papua New Guinea, one on languages of Vanuatu and New
Caledonia, and one on Oceanic Austronesian languages), the overall depth
and scale are not as impressive, especially given the generally accepted
view that Papua New Guinea has the highest density of languages in the
world. This point is not to be taken as a criticism, but rather, it
reflects yet another dimension of inequality among languages of the world:
those situated in developed countries are more accessible to research and

The stretching of the geographic notion of the Pacific to Southeast Asia
and even China in the scope of the book is a good editorial decision.
Indonesia, with its richness in languages and proximity, both geographic
and linguistic, to the Pacific, certainly deserves attention and
discussion in this volume.  Notwithstanding the brevity of Bradley's
account, it has at least conveyed the message to the reader that there are
more, many more languages out there, far and remote, that may not be known
by the world, not even their names.  These languages of mainland Southeast
Asia and southern China may not look interesting grammatically to some
linguists, as they are presumably analytic with a typological profile much
like that of Mandarin and Thai, which some consider too simple, but in
fact much more challenging ? given few morphological clues ? for a
non-native speaker to describe and analyze properly. Nonetheless they
undeniably form an inseparable part of the diversity of human languages.

There is a general misperception, even among linguists, about the number
of speakers: the fewer speakers a language has, the more likely it is
endangered;  on the contrary, the more speakers a language has, the less
likely it is endangered. Such a simplistic view can be misleading in
measuring language endangerment (Ding 2006b; cf. Sutherland 2003 for other
factors involved in gauging the risk of species extinction). Some authors
in this volume also voice their concerns about taking the number of
speakers without making reference to the linguistic ecology as an
indicator of language endangerment. As dozens of languages with less than
100 speakers have been spoken in Papua New Guinea for centuries, Sumbuk
suggests that a stable number of speakers is more important than the
population size of the speakers. On the other hand, Hajek, observing the
encroachment of Indonesian to other languages in the country, warns that
'some care should be taken when expressing the view that a large number of
speakers guarantees the future of a language.' (p. 124)

Since language shift in the modern times typically arises as a natural
response to the rapid and sudden change of the living environment, the
ultimate solution for sustaining linguistic diversity would lie in
strategies which enhance the original linguistic ecology of indigenous
peoples. That is, the pressure for adaptation should be redirected from
speakers of indigenous languages to languages per se through processes
such as 'language modernization' (Ding 2006a)  and expansion of the
domains of use of indigenous languages, as argued by Amery.  (For more
discussion on an ecological approach, see Mhlhusler 2003 and references

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the volume is free from typos (as far
as I can tell), a rarity in publication of recent years. If I were pressed
for improvement of the book, I could only suggest a change of a larger
font and perhaps inclusion of a couple of chapters: one on languages in
the Philippines, and the other on New Zealand, where the Maori have
successfully developed a maintenance program called 'the language nest' to
preserve their native tongue (cf. Tsunoda 2005). Two authors have
mentioned the Maori case in passing, but a full chapter would inform the
reader of a workable model and its achievement in detail, which should be
able to render the impression of the fight against language loss less


Bradley, David, ed. 2006. Heritage Maintenance for Endangered Languages in
Yunnan, China. Bundoora: La Trobe University.

Ding, Picus S. 2006a. Language modernization of Prinmi: Problems from
promoting orthography to language maintenance. In Bradley (2006), 19-26.

_____. 2006b. Approaches to linguistic diversity and biological diversity:
A critical comparison. Presented at the Language Culture and Mind
Conference (II).  Ecole Nationale Superieure des Telecommunications.

Muehlhaeusler, Peter. 2003. Language endangerment and language revival.
Journal of Sociolinguistics, 7,2: 232-245.

Sutherland, William. 2003. Parallel extinction risk and global
distribution of languages and species. Nature, 423: 276-279.

Tsunoda, Tasaku. 2005. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization.
Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.


Picus Sizhi Ding is a faculty member at Macao Polytechnic Institute.
Taking a holistic approach to linguistic research, he is interested in
languages of China, particularly those less-studied and under-studied. His
interests in languages are not confined to the grammar of languages, but
extend also to the well-being of minority languages and maintenance of
linguistic diversity.


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