How do majority language speakers feel about language endangerment?
abdul at October 1st, 2015
David Crystal, in a newspaper article published in 1999, presents a not uncommon view about language endangerment and death: ‘Is language death such a disaster? Surely, you might say, it is simply a symptom of more people striving to improve their lives by joining the modern world. So long as a few hundred or even a couple of thousand languages survive, that is sufficient’ (The Guardian G2, 25 October 1999). However, not all views are so restrained:
Welsh is an ugly, guttural language and Gaelic is not much better. Languages don’t just die because a more powerful nation says it should be so (ask Estonians) but because they lack the means and the flexibility to actually express the subtleties of modern-day existence. English is a fantastically subtle language… and the Scots and the Welsh should consider themselves lucky to be exposed to it from an early age.
(Howard J. Rogers, Australia) (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/talking_point/664149.stm)
Such attitudes suggest a ‘survival of the fittest’ type of approach to language diversity, in that only some languages deserve to ‘live’ while others deserve to ‘die’. Such talk is unscientific – as Harrison points out (see above) languages are not species which die out or become extinct. And furthermore, such analogies are unhelpful. Languages are systems of human communication which are closely bound up with emotion, affect and identity, which such an approach ignores.
In the past, various authorities have actually tried to engineer language endangerment for political ends. In the United States during the late 19th century, so-called ‘Indian boarding schools’ were founded to assimilate Native American children into Euro-American culture. In some areas, these schools were primarily run by religious missionaries. Especially given the young age of some of the children sent to the schools, they have been documented as traumatic experiences for many of the children who attended them. They were generally forbidden from speaking their native languages, taught Christianity instead of their native religions, and in numerous other ways forced to abandon their Native American identity and adopt European-American culture (Marr, Online).
A similar system was in operation in the USSR. In 1924, the USSR established the Committee of the North designed to administer the affairs of Northern minorities. Schools were established among the 26 indigenous peoples’ groups in the North that included the teaching of indigenous languages. Thirteen alphabets were created using the Roman alphabet for indigenous languages. By 1926, eighteen residential schools were in place across Siberia, and five day-schools had been established. However, in 1937, Northern alphabets were outlawed. After World War II, the USSR began the process of Russification. Northern groups were forcibly settled into mixed areas in order to assimilate and foster Russian unity. From the age of 2 years, Northern indigenous children were forced to attend boarding schools where they were prohibited from speaking their languages. By 1970, no indigenous used were as language of instruction in schools (United Nations Economic and Social Council 2010: 11).
Crystal (1999) gives very convincing arguments for encouraging linguistic diversity:
We should care about dying languages for the same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet. In the case of language, we are talking about intellectual and cultural diversity, not biological diversity, but the issues are the same … “Every language is a temple,” writes Oliver Wendell Holmes, “in which the soul of those who speak it is enshrined.”
Whereas the comparison with endangered species is an emotive metaphor (and again not strictly accurate), it is an understandable one – something intangible is lost when a language falls out of use. This is especially true when referring to the emotional and identity aspects of language use – while of course you can be Irish and not speak Irish fluently, be Breton and not speak a word of Breton, be Belarusian and not use the language regularly, most people recognize that at some level at least, identity is closed bound to the language you speak. And while the language continues to be spoken by at least some of the population, there is a reference point for the rest of the community who do not speak the language very fluently, or not at all. It is this emotional connection to language which, I believe, is one of the most compelling reasons to seek to maintain the widest possible spectrum of linguistic diversity