Language Researchers' Big Mistake?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jul 8 16:25:52 UTC 2008

Language Researchers' Big Mistake?

As a 'sociolinguist' I am supposed to study and report on language
use. The language I use in doing so is English. After all, this gives
my work the best chance of being accessed. But it is probably ironic
that I am studying languages that do not give such opportunity to its
users: Taiwanese and European languages of smaller communities.

Like most of my fellow-researchers, I apply sociolinguistic principles
to determine the status of smaller languages. The purpose here is to
illustrate how these languages are dominated by larger official or
national languages. And yet, I would not consider writing about this
in my own language, Flemish or Dutch. In Taiwan, most linguists
supporting Holo (Taiwanese) or Taiwan's indigenous languages will use
Mandarin or English to do so. I also write all of my research on
minority languages in English, the language often blamed for
dominating smaller languages.

But what does it actually mean when we say that English or Mandarin
threatens a smaller language? And what does it mean when a language is
disappearing or threatened? It means that the people who know to speak
such language are using it less and less, are neglecting its
subtleties, and are increasingly using another language. That other
language is rivaling their own mother tongue, with the probable
outcome that the same people will choose not to transfer their mother
tongue onto their children. Some might even forget most of it before
they reach retirement age.

A language does not die, nor is it eradicated or killed by another
language. Instead, people speaking a smaller language gradually stop
doing so. So we should, in fact, not talk of 'language death', but of
language abandonment.

People abandon their language for a variety of reasons. Those reasons
have one certainty in common: the shift from a mother tongue to
another language is accompanied and often preceded by other
(political, economic) events. It is therefore not always appropriate
to talk about language abandonment in negative, regrettable or even
protesting terms.

Nor is it appropriate to continue blaming history and past governments
for people's decision to abandon their mother tongue. In some cases,
language abandonment has been a liberation and enrichment, ' a sigh of
relief'. So, in talking about 'language loss' or 'language death', one
inevitably has to take into consideration societal circumstances that
contributed to or even caused such change.

A recent argument from a number of sociolinguists is that the
disappearance of smaller languages does not affect cultural diversity.
Different cultures are always dying while new ones arise (Ladefoged
1992, Swaan 2002) has become a popular though controversial
catchphrase: although most of us witness that the world is becoming
more homogeneous, that may be because we fail to see new differences
that are arising. These linguists also contend that granting a member
of a minority language group the right to speak his or her mother
tongue does not in itself empower him or her.

Although I have reservations about such views, I agree that academics
involved in most language movements against dominant languages (i.e.
in favor of minority languages) have distanced themselves too much
from the original aim of sociolinguistics as a science: describing,
documenting and researching language use between people. Instead of
linguistic theory, many linguists use metaphors and emotional appeals.
Much like: "The panda, that huge and cute black-and-white pet is
almost extinct"; "the poor Chinese River Dolphin is endangered";
"Hakka, that beautiful language is slowly disappearing…"

To save an endangered species, people simply have to leave it alone in
its habitat. To save a language, people have to do the opposite: keep
on using, shaping, changing it – but never leave it alone. Languages
are, in other words, made and abandoned - by people. Parents have a
pivotal role here: they will normally choose the language offering
their children the best chances on the job market. And this choice,
more often than not, is the country's official language and/or
English, not the children's mother tongue – as most linguists (like
myself) would like to see.

So why do linguists still bother? Why not accept the majority's choice
if that majority prefers to abandon its language? Because I am
convinced that those children who, at home, speak another language
than the official language in school notice that they can do something
more than other children. And most of all, allowing children speaking
a smaller (minority) language to receive kindergarten and primary
education through their mother tongue holds crucial cognitive
advantages for their later education.

But let us not become overly sentimental in defending languages by
completely identifying the minority language with the community in
question. One can be a very loyal Taiwanese citizen without speaking
Taiwanese, Chinese without speaking Mandarin, and Belgian without
speaking Dutch or French. To be able to speak a language is proof of
an identity. Language itself is an insigne of one's own identity. But
it is not the sole function of a language. Languages are also tools
for communication and personal/professional advancement.

Language sentimentalists decrying the abandonment of smaller languages
often neglect this function. "The more languages, the better" seems to
be their straightforward message. Plus: all those languages have to be
treated as equal and taught in school. Some linguists even oppose
using one single language as a tool for international communication
(lingua franca).

But if we insist on promoting such a multitude of smaller languages,
could not the opposite result be achieved? Could we, albeit
unwillingly, contribute to a scenario of "The more languages, the more
English"? If a country like South Africa, for example, cannot support
treating all of its 11 official languages as equal, will it not choose
English as the only logical solution for its linguistic confusion? The
same question goes for the European Union, where even the tiniest
community languages are being promoted and protected by law.

It is feasible that English will become the big destroyer of
languages, not merely because people are abandoning their own smaller
language, but because academic researchers have become overly
protective and sentimental. If a minority group in Taiwan has decided
to abandon its language in favor of Mandarin, they have done so not
only because of past KMT language repression. Most likely, they made a
conscious and pragmatic choice in order to better empower the ethnic
community they belong to.

The mistake of a good deal of language research is therefore an ironic
one: academics fighting against English cultural and linguistic
imperialism might actually achieve the opposite of what they strive
for. By trying to give all smaller languages a higher status and more
equal rights, it is instead the domination of English as well as the
country's official language that is strengthened.


Ladefoged, P. (1992). Another View of Endangered Languages. In:
Language 68, 809-811.

Phillipson, R. (2003). English Only in Europe; Challenging Language
Policy. Routledge, London.

Swaan, A. (2002). Woorden van de Wereld: Het Mondiale Talenstelsel.
Bakker/Prometheus, Amsterdam.

N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who
disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list