Saving Endangered Languages Before They Disappear


Ron Ardis / CC-BY-SA-2.0
Longitudinal data from immersion programs such as the one for Hawaiian in Hawaii, show that the positive effects of ethnic pride instilled in such schools versus the negative effects of ethnic shame are overwhelming.

In Brief

The 21st century will witness a decline in linguistic diversity unprecedented in history, and yet most people are unaware of it, or worse, not only don’t care, but even celebrate it. When these languages are lost, a unique window onto the mind is closed forever, and we lose one more way in which the collective human experience was conceived, and with that, one of the ways in which the human mind constructs, negotiates, perceives, and differentiates our realities is gone forever. Speakers abandon languages in direct response to bias and discrimination, whether this is realized overtly through the explicit repression or oppression of linguistic minorities or the community of speakers that the language serves to identify as a separate group, or through more subtle covert forms of discrimination. Indigenous minority communities can thrive better economically and indeed physically if allowed to maintain their own languages in intra-community communication, and thus benefit from policies that support additive bi- or multi-lingualism, rather than subtractive monolingualism. What have proven effective in this effort are different types of official policy support and advocacy from above and grassroots activism from below.


Key Concepts

  • Languages become endangered and are abandoned by their speakers as a result of the internalization by minority or subjugated language communities of the negative valuation, bias, and overt or covert discrimination against them on the part of the majority or dominant language.

  • Language endangerment is particularly acute in former settlement colonies where
    the original multilingual context has proven to be especially intolerable to the
    immigrant populations of the successor nation-states.

  • The only really proven solutions for success combine top-down approaches with bottom-up ones. Top-down approaches entail official policy support and advocacy. They also consist of promoting tolerance to bilingualism (or multi-lingualism) through education and media where the minority languages are seen as assets, to be welcomed alongside, rather than repressed and replaced by, dominant ones. Further, such policies must not promote or support the already fully dominant language to the exclusion of all others.

  • Bottom-up approaches that bear proven success include local grassroots activism, community-driven educational programs, and indigenous-language only pre-school and early school ‘language nests’ for young children that promote minority language use in a total immersion context, where the local languages can be allowed to develop and thrive in the context of the permissive atmosphere afforded by the enlightened top-down policies.

“I will soon go berry-picking and I will take my language with me.” So I was told some years ago by Marta Kongaraeva, one of the last fluent speakers of a language of a unique group of people from Siberia known as Tofa, who traditionally practiced a form of a hunting/gathering that used reindeer as beasts of burden. She used the metaphor for death that is (or was) commonly used in this language, akin to the euphemistic expression ‘pass away’ in English, but one anchored to their traditional life ways. She did not say this with joy, but with the resigned acceptance that her language and culture would cease to exist when she leaves this life.

Sadly, Tofa is just one of thousands of languages in a similar position: The 21st century will witness a decline in linguistic diversity unprecedented in history. When these languages disappear, they take with them an enormously vast collection of knowledge and wisdom: the hopes, dreams, jokes, riddles, prayers, tales, and history of many peoples of the world. When these languages are lost, a unique window onto the mind is closed forever, and we are collectively impoverished as a result. These windows, once closed, typically cannot be reopened, and we lose one more way in which the collective human experience was conceived. That means that one of the ways that the human mind constructs, negotiates, perceives, and differentiates our realities is gone forever. Language is the most human of behaviors, and the vast majority of the knowledge systems created by humans are being lost and will never be recovered.

The global language extinction crisis looms as one of the major social issues facing many indigenous minority communities, and yet most people are unaware of it, or worse, not only don’t care about it — but often even celebrate it. If you don’t care, you are a part of the problem. You promote bias, intolerance, and discrimination, yet you may not even be consciously aware you are doing it. Languages are abandoned by their speakers as a direct response to bias and discrimination. This may be realized overtly through the explicit repression or oppression of linguistic minorities or the community of speakers that the language serves to identify as a separate group, or through more subtle, but no less insidious, covert forms of discrimination. Communities abandon their minority languages as a response to this discrimination, having internalized the negative valuation that the larger and more dominant speech community has. Thus, language endangerment is virtually always a response to bias and discrimination, and reflects a power differential between a majority/superordinate and a minority/subordinate group. As a vector of discrimination and one that is in principle mutable (unlike skin or eye color), it is only natural that communities interested in self-preservation would seek to eliminate such vectors of discrimination.

“Wouldn’t it be better if everyone spoke the same language? Wouldn’t that promote better mutual respect and understanding?” I often hear these good but naive questions. A common language does not in any sense entail mutual respect or understanding. One need only glance through world history to find millions killed in civil wars by people who share a language to see how indefensible that position is, e.g., the combatants in the US Civil War, the Russian Civil War/Revolution, Chinese Communist Revolution, the Korean War, or the split up of Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina primarily all spoke the same languages as their enemies in these wars, but millions perished regardless. One need only turn on a ‘spirited’ debate between Democrats and Republicans, or between Darwinians and Creationists, to see that a common language does not in any sense entail a common ground or viewpoint. Further, there is not one single war that has ever been fought exclusively over the issue of language.

The attitude of “our language is better than yours” is one that lies at the heart of many modern nation-states either as official or de facto policy with respect to the ethnolinguistic minorities found within their national territorial borders. This intolerance to linguistic diversity is most severe in former settlement colonies: places where largely (but not exclusively) European expansionist states reconstituted these in new territories, to create new and better Europes, so to speak. Along with these colonialists came an elevating of the colonial tongue at the expense of the plethora of existing language communities already in place. With territorial hegemony came social hegemony, and gradually the conquered indigenous populations were to give way — territorially for sure, linguistically eventually, and physically in far too many instances, to the newcomers from abroad. This is most severe in Anglophone and Hispanophone colonies today, where in places like the eastern United States or Uruguay there is almost no trace of the original inhabitants of the region except in funny-sounding place names like Massachusetts. But language shift is also quite severe in the Lusophone New World (i.e., Portuguese-speaking Brazil), the Russophone world and in the Sinophone area, and to a lesser extent in the Francophone colonial world, as well. In these areas, linguistic diversity is often considered bad locally, even if promoted officially, and is often demonized or debased, probably in part as a result of the Judeo-Christian tradition that considers linguistic diversity to be a punishment from God, though generally couched within a different rhetoric. For example, in the United States, the patriotism of someone who speaks a language other than English is often questioned, though patriotism per se and linguistic abilities have nothing to do with each other.

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Pierre Bona / CC-BY-SA-2.0
Bilingual road sign in French and Corsican in Corsica, France. Research has shown that bilingual brains tend to be are demonstrably healthier than monolingual ones.

Maintaining endangered minority languages is too expensive. This is another specious argument one frequently encounters. Such attitudes have led to the wholesale abandonment of dozens of languages once spoken in these regions, taking the United States as a representative example. This might have once been true from the perspective of printing costs, but modern digital technology and on-demand printing have rendered that argument hollow. To make matters worse for such claims, the data show quite clearly why maintaining minority languages is good economically – but also for health!

With respect to the economic benefits of maintaining endangered languages, longitudinal data from immersion programs such as the ones for Cherokee in Oklahoma and Hawaiian in Hawaii, show that the positive effects of ethnic pride instilled in such schools vs. the negative effects of ethnic shame are overwhelming. The students who go through these programs become fully bilingual in their heritage tongue and in English, debunking yet another unfounded claim for those who oppose bilingual education: namely, that the students will not properly acquire English unless they are schooled in it. It is virtually impossible for a cognitively normal, hearing child not to acquire English while growing up in the United States. These immersion school students have higher graduation rates, higher average salaries, and lower rates of incarceration than students from the same minority communities who did not receive immersion schooling in their ancestral language. In general, they tend to get better-paying jobs and thereby more fully participate in and contribute to furthering the economy when compared with the other students.

As for the health benefits of maintaining heritage languages, the data is quite clear now that bilingual brains tend to be are demonstrably healthier than monolingual ones. Such data come from a two-decade long study in Canada that showed that the brains of bilingual speakers typically showed a significantly later onset of dementia – on average approximately four and a half years – than the brains of monolingual speakers. Along with obvious health benefits, are the considerable economic effects as well, since the time and money otherwise spent on caring for dementia patients can be saved. This is something that benefits virtually all members of society.

Further Research

The UNESCO Atlas of World Languages has been monitoring endangered languages in the last decades. The list of North-American languages can be viewed online using Google maps.

Map.jpg

The Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), set a milestone in the defense of oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage (http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?pg=00006).

The Foundation for Endangered Languages founded in 1995, offers a passionate Manifesto and the online collection of newsletters (Ogmios.org).

Ethnologue.com, the most prominent site about world languages, featuring interactive maps and many online dictionaries and grammars, is a treasure of information for all linguists. Their definition of an endangered language? A language that is at risk of no longer being used by the younger generation is considered endangered.

As I mentioned previously, languages typically are abandoned by their speakers as a result of discrimination, bias, and negative valuation of the minority community by the majority. Members of the minority community internalize these negative valuations and seek to distance themselves from this particular vector of discrimination or abuse by shifting to the majority language. Where and how this is happening globally and to what degree can largely be correlated with the particular history of the region in question. I introduced above the concept of the settlement colony that is the pattern of colonialism that typified the settlement of the Americas (but not the Caribbean, see below) or Australia. Both of these reflect the canonical mode of colonialism where the first wave of conquerors sailed to far-off lands to establish territorial hegemony over the area. They were eventually followed by waves of settlers whose purpose was not only to both re-create a new and better Europe in these lands but also to establish social (and ultimately linguistic) hegemony over the area as well. The result of this is the replacement of indigenous languages with the language of the colonial metropole. In the cases mentioned above, this was usually English, Spanish, or Portuguese. In the Americas, French has been successfully established and maintained only in Quebec and French Guyana. But elsewhere, it has taken control over New Caledonia in the south Pacific, where French is rapidly replacing the myriad indigenous languages previously spoken there. The conditions of the expansion and establishing of territorial and social hegemony also typifies the Russian conquest of Siberia. The overland route of expansion of Russia instead of the ocean route seems to obscure in the minds of many the fact that this was the same kind of colonialist pursuit, albeit one that primarily manifested itself—ironically perhaps— in the first decades of Soviet power. Now almost all Native Siberian languages are in catastrophic decline. A similar argument could be made for the overland expansion of the Han Chinese across China and into Taiwan, representing a recent but more canonical form of colonialist domination that is continuing today. As a result, several of the smaller indigenous Formosan languages of Taiwan have already yielded to Chinese. Furthermore, many small languages in southern China are now also beginning to shift to Chinese.

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Kahunapule Michael Johnson / CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0
Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. The Matugar Panau language is spoken in just one village and an adjacent hamlet in this area.

This settlement paradigm is not the only mode of colonialist expansion, of course. Indeed, even settlement colonialism is generally preceded by the other major type of colonialist expansion: namely, trade or exploitation colonialism, where the goal was not to recreate new Europes but simply to utilize the a region’s natural resources to directly benefit the colonialist metropole. Such a pattern typifies the colonial paradigm forced on most of African and the Pacific region, as well as the Caribbean islands. The trade or exploitation type of colonialist domination also yields a specific set of linguistic consequences today. Basically these are of two types, each reflecting a specific historical circumstance. Typically the colonialist power attempted to tap into pre-existing networks of economic or political activity in their exploitation colonies. These ‘middle men’ groups that were enfranchised during those times now often hold positions of power in the post-colonial polities. A typical example of this would be the three regionally dominant languages found in Nigeria: namely, Hausa in the north, Yoruba in the southwest, and Igbo in the southeast. These have expanded considerably in the colonial and post-colonial period, and now serve as the prestige targets of shift for many minority communities in Nigeria. In other words, these are the languages that people are now shifting to when they abandon their ancestral languages in the linguistic zero sum game that characterizes the language dynamics of the region. Hausa is expanding particularly aggressively (and is also tied with the spread of Islam in the region), and today has replaced a large number of indigenous languages once spoken across northern Nigeria. To be sure, on a macro-level, language shift in sub-Saharan Africa is generally towards other African languages that were enfranchised by the colonial rulers rather than towards the colonial language. The exception is in southern Africa, where in South Africa and Namibia one finds shift to colonialist languages such as Afrikaans or English.

The other main pattern found in exploitation colonies is typified by what can be called the plantation economy that was established by colonial powers in various places. In some instances, large plantations to exploit particular cash crops were established that were generally worked by slave labor drawn from various linguistically distinct groups. Sharing no common language and with limited but partial access to the European colonialist tongue, these communities developed new languages that had the majority of words drawn from the European languages, but with grammatical systems that differ in significant ways. Today we generally refer to such languages as Creole languages, which are separate, distinct, and fully developed languages, not broken or debased forms of the European languages that helped constitute them, as they are frequently but inaccurately considered to be by their colonialist exploiters and their descendants. The Creole-speaking populations are devalued by these very same people, and so too are the languages they speak, but they are fully developed and functional linguistic systems in their own right. Development of Creoles typifies both Pacific colonial entities such as Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea, as well as those in the Caribbean.

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Fabio Gismondi / CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0
The author explains how his organization, the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, has helped revive Siletz Dee-ni. This is a historically spoken by Native Americans on the Siletz Indian Reservation in Oregon.

The right to speak the language that you choose is fundamental and universal. The suppression of languages, whether covert or overt, is morally and objectively wrong. Indigenous minority communities can thrive better economically and indeed physically if allowed to maintain their own languages in intra-community communication, and thus benefit from policies that support additive bi- or multi-lingualism, rather than subtractive monolingualism. No realistic advocate imagines or responsibly promotes a scenario where the pre-contact exclusive use of the indigenous language is restored to the exclusion of the current socially dominant/majority language. Thus, it is not useful to the communities to bolster false hopes that their language(s) will become the mode of communication between different speech communities. That function has already been usurped by the dominant language. However, the fact that members of linguistic minorities can choose to have dinner conversations or religious ceremonies in their ancestral tongue does not impact in any way or in any sense the members of the broader dominant language community, and really it is none of their business. As my friend and language teacher Vasya Gabov, the youngest remaining speaker of the Chulym language of central Siberia told me, “The Russians speak Russian, let the Chulym speak Chulym!”

Despite the often overwhelming forces at work and the odds stacked against them, language activists like Vasya Gabov around the world are tirelessly working to maintain their linguistic identities, and not to let their window onto the human mind be closed for ever. Grassroots revitalization efforts are underway around the globe, and these language activists often must keep their focus in the face of discrimination, hateful vitriol, and even abuse. My organization, the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a nonprofit based in the United States, works directly with language activists and their communities to develop a lasting and tangible legacy of documentation that can serve as the basis for educational materials or simply to further the process of language revitalization, to maintain or find new domains of use for their languages, and to help build capacity in these communities through training in applied language technology. No two communities have identical needs or goals, and we simply serve as catalysts to help each community meet their specific desired outcomes. Let me share a couple of their stories to exemplify this.

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Ferrari + caballos + fuerzo = cerebro Humano / CC-BY-SA-2.0
Quellón Región, Chiloé. Communities from the Huilliche (Tsesungun) people of Chiloe in southern Chile use hip-hop performances to communicate indigenous languages.

In 2004, I met Bud Lane, a language activist and the storehouse of vast cultural knowledge about the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians in Siletz, Oregon. Bud is one of the only people alive who is able to speak the Siletz Dee-Ni language – and at 50, he is by far the youngest. Linguists place this language in the Athabaskan language family, which means Siletz is a distant linguistic cousin of the Navaho and the Apache of the Southwest, as well as of the indigenous populations of interior Alaska. In 2004, no children spoke a single word of the Siletz Dee-Ni language. Over a three-year period, I helped Bud build a new resource for his language: a massive electronic Talking Dictionary containing many thousands of words. It consists of words that are searchable through either English or Siletz Dee-Ni, along with a sound recording of each word spoken by a native speaker. This resource is now used in the local charter school, and today I am happy to report that there are dozens of children with various degrees of knowledge of the language, which increase yearly. Especially useful in the quest to make the language ‘cool’ for the younger community members have been contests for the best short film in the language, and short sketches that are performed at the annual spring festival. Also, pairing language content with significant traditional cultural activities or festivals has proven to be a successful contextualization of the language materials, and further, has allowed the kind of trans-generational participation that is highly valued in this culture. Perhaps it is a crass approach to attempt to make an ancestral language seem more contemporary by pairing it with modern technology but the ends justify the means. Technology is modern and cool, and when modernity is coupled with tradition there is a powerful knock-on effect: Increased ethnic pride correlates directly with elevated self-esteem in the individual, and such an individual feels that s/he has the right to succeed, and takes steps to do so, and is not resigned to defeat in such pursuits. Gradually, the younger community members thus internalize positive attitudes towards their linguistic identity, and realize it does not interfere with their full participation in the broader dominant culture.

In 2009, I visited Matugar village in Madang Province of Papua New Guinea. There was an air of excitement and anticipation about the electric power lines being extended down the North Coast highway that would soon reach their village, carrying the Internet. The Matugar Panau language is spoken in just this one village and an adjacent hamlet. Like most small communities in this part of Papua New Guinea, the children and youth have rejected the ancestral language as belonging to the past. A group of forward-thinking activists in their 30s and 40s, who represent the last group exposed to the Panau language while growing up, felt the need to update their language for the digital age that they knew was soon to reach them. One language activist, Mr. Rudolf Raward, took part in a training seminar and began creating new materials in his language, which had never been written prior to this. I helped Rudolf develop an orthography for the language, and he produced the first ever book and digi-story in his language. This spearheaded a movement to create online resources in that mother tongue. When the Internet finally reached Matugar late in 2011, the youth and children in the community were stunned to find their language already there, with videos, sound recordings, etc. This more than anything has rekindled interest in the language, as it became clear that Panau could have a place in the modern world. Over the past two and a half years, several young community members have received technical training and are currently working on developing other resources, including teaching materials.

Navajo Poem

If you don’t open your eyes there is no sky
If you don’t listen there is no ancestors
If you don’t breathe there is no air
If you don’t walk there is no earth
If you don’t speak there is no world

SFAA conference (Santa Fe 2005)

Unfortunately, only a tiny fraction of the language communities facing the very real possibility of the loss of their languages have begun the long journey towards language revitalization. For some, it is already too late. However, many communities are just beginning to shift to majority languages and thus have a very real chance to turn the tide if given a chance. That chance needs to come in the form of several different types of official policy support and advocacy from above and grassroots activism from below.

First, governments need to stop antagonistic policies, including those whose policies are more in the realm of benign neglect with respect to their linguistic minorities. Laws like the English-only laws that have gained momentum in various states in the U.S. could not be a bigger waste of time or money. They reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of the linguistic market. English could not have a more dominant position than it does in modern America, regardless of how many new waves of immigrants go there. Spending effort and resources on further bolstering the English language is complete folly.

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Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0
The author argues that the Maori people in New Zealand is one example of a success story reversing the trend towards a language shift.

Second, policy makers and citizens in local, state, and national/federal jurisdictions throughout the world need to celebrate rather than denigrate the indigenous peoples of their regions. This process should start early in the school curriculum. In short, what the average person can do is simply not be part of the problem, allow these minority communities a space for self-expression, and be tolerant of diversity. Children by nature tend to be more accepting of differences than adults. Discriminatory or biased attitudes are learned, not innate, and thus can be avoided through the raising of awareness. Furthermore, it is important for younger generations to own and celebrate their linguistic heritage in order to ensure a future for the language. Perhaps the single most impactful means for realizing this end would be to adapt the language in a hip-hop style of performance. I have had the honor of seeing first-hand how powerful a message that hip-hop performances of indigenous languages send, among diverse sets of communities from the Huilliche (Tsesungun) people of Chiloe in southern Chile, to a wide range of language communities throughout equatorial Africa, to the remote Hruso Aka-speaking hamlet of Palizi in Arunachal Pradesh, India. When you see grandmothers in these communities singing along with their grandchildren, as I have, you realize that this youth genre really has broad appeal, and can serve as yet another means of establishing a possible future for these fascinating and age-old tongues.

In the few examples of true success stories of reversing the trend towards language shift, there is almost always a state-sanctioned or supported policy that promotes tolerance to linguistic diversity. This would be the case, for example, of Maori in New Zealand, Welsh in Wales or Irish Gaelic in Ireland. Thanks to this support from above, combined with a grassroots movement from below, all of these languages have many more speakers than they did a generation ago. If allowed to thrive, minority language communities, small and large alike, will usually do so. But the process is not an easy one and requires significant commitment on the part of both the minority language community members and the majority society. The one true measure of success is if new speakers are generated. This applies regardless of the size of the threatened speech community and whether the language is spoken by a handful of people or hundreds of thousands or even millions. To be sure, there is no one-size-fits-all-solution for communities facing linguistic extinction. But the ‘top-down plus bottom-up’ approach advocated here has proven to be successful regardless of the language itself, its location, or its level of endangerment.

In short, when given the chance, indigenous minority language communities can forge their own paths in the 21st century and step off the path to oblivion. Given the proper support, tools, and training, indigenous communities around the world can find new venues for self-expression, and the Internet offers a level playing field for this in a way unimaginable only a short time ago. Though the issues are real and serious, there is reason to hope that these communities can continue to find the means for expression that will enable them to survive into the future. Thus, our collective experience as humans can continue to be enriched, rather than impoverished, as we explore and seek to understand the many different and equally valid ways to express ourselves in language – this most human of characteristics. Long live these last speakers, and may they not be the last ones after all!