Happy 2017! See you later!

See you in a while!
See you in a while!

It has been a great year in 2016. I’ve been able to write more about the motivations for learning languages—and have successfully stirred up some controversy. My goal has been to highlight privilege among language learners and to shine light on those who speak less-commonly studied languages. For example, here is my most controversial post from 2016: “Language hacking ≠ language love”.

One problem has been that I didn’t spend as much time learning languages as I would have liked. So for 2016, my goal is to spend more time on Oromo and Somali. I may work on a little Serbian, since I used to know some and we have a Serbian exchange student living with us currently. Tagalog may find its way in there, too, as an associate from Manila recently joined my team at work.

In this time of growing intolerance and shrinking globe, learning languages has never been more important or political. While I have been writing discoveries made by learning languages and focusing on the languages of my community, I want to turn back to those languages for a while. Time to get back in the trenches.

I will also work on some other writing projects that have been requiring more attention.

So, I will take the next month off. I will come back in February with a summary of progress up to this point.

See you in a few weeks!

Photo by UW Digital CollectionsUW Digital Images, No restrictions, Link

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Endangered languages challenge the smugness of the powerful

What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don't?
What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don’t?

With assimilation of language comes assimilation of culture, and as the language is lost, so is the culture. The longer we can put off assimilation of language, the more time we have to learn from the culture that accompanies that language. As speakers of a majority language, I must work to preserve a way of thinking and viewing the world that is different from mine.

In a recent article, one of my favorite language-writers, Michael Erard, described the tropes journalists use when writing about dying languages. Journalists make a kind of heart-breaking spectacle so we can watch these helpless languages go the way of the dodo.

I noticed that there is no call to action. While many people know about these sad stories, these stories offer nothing for readers to do. “Linguists” are depicted as tromping out into jungles and steppes to record the last gasps of the language “for posterity.” They are the amber that traps the last member of the species for future scientists to observe.

So what? Why care about dying languages?

Because you’re too smug.
Cultural challenge

Ecolinguism in Israel: Another place where languages go to die

How many languages can Israel allow to flourish?
How many languages can Israel allow to flourish?

The modern State of Israel recognizes two official languages: Hebrew and Arabic. Nearly all of its Jewish citizens came from somewhere else within the last 2-3 generations. When these immigrants came, they brought their language. Pressure from Israeli society eliminated the vast majority of their languages.

While 49% of Israelis over 20 claim Hebrew as their native language, according to Wikipedia, 18% claim Arabic, and 15% Russian. The other 18% speak Yiddish, French, English, Spanish, and “Other” languages, which include Romanian, German, and Amharic.

The language picture is more complex than at first glance. A language may include multiple dialects, each living its own dynamic. Some of the last speakers of certain language dialects live in Israel. Active violence has also taken place against other languages.

As Hebrew was chosen as the official language, its proponents put in place a system that does not give other languages space to live and grow.

Let’s look at a few of the examples of languages in Israel today.
Language survival

Can the Welsh save Inuktitut?

Their language is as useful as we make it.
Their language is as useful as we make it.

The Inuit of Northern Canada are worried that their language, Inuktitut, will die. They looked to the example of another language, Welsh, that managed to come back from the brink, thanks to some creative and forceful measures. Inuit language specialists sat down recently in Wales to learn about language-revitalization efforts.

I don’t know if the secret is this simple, but here’s one of the most important things that the Welsh are doing:

It’s mandatory for schools in Wales to teach in Welsh from preschool to grade 10.

That means that the language is the means to an end. Welsh is not a subject in school; it is school.

Inuktitut, like any language, will only succeed when it is the most natural end to the most natural ends.
Giving language life

Arabs and Italians: Do we actually care about language death?

Fight for every member of the ecosystem--even for the less beautiful or "exotic"
Fight for every member of the ecosystem–even for the more plain and less “exotic.”

People talk about the tragedy of language death, but much of the worry focuses on losing the “exotic.” We worry terribly about indigenous Canadian and Australian languages, but not about other languages.

Recently I read about the dialect(s) of Arabic spoken in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which encouraged me to reflect on the potential death of the dialect of a major language. English is becoming so pervasive that children and even young adults cannot speak Arabic comfortably. The nonchalant attitude of the interviewees towards Arabic made me sad.

Also, I learned about the endangered Milanese dialect of Italian. The heart of a folk-music scene in the 1960s, it is spoken by only 2% of the population today.

Italian and Arabic: two well-known languages, not terribly exotic. No money is going into preserving these dialects.

Why do we care about indigenous languages dying, but not about other, less exotic, deaths?
Choosing survivors

Why Putin could (will?) eat Trump’s lunch

Who has greater global insight? Who speaks more languages?
Who has greater global insight? Who speaks more languages?

Russian Federation President Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin possesses some amazing language skills for the leader of a world power. In this video of a town-hall style discussion, he jumps in on the interpreter and does it himself.

We all know he spent a good portion of his career in Germany, which explains his very strong German skills.

But let’s think of it this way. When Mark Zuckerberg addressed a Chinese university audience in Mandarin in 2014, the audience literally responded with Oos and Ahs.

(I was disappointed that President Obama spoke so little Bahasa Indonesia after living there as a boy. He got Zuckerberg-style applause.)

Mr. Putin also gives speeches in English, but I don’t hear anyone Oo or Ah.

Why this contrast? Because Americans don’t learn foreign languages to a professional level. A Russian leader is trilingual, and gets modest applause. An internationally-renowned American CEO speaks modest Mandarin and receives great accolades.

Now we have a president who has shown no interest in foreign languages, for himself or for anyone else.

Mr. Putin possesses a clear advantage over President-Elect Trump. When one knows foreign languages, one has insight into other peoples, countries, and cultures.

Who needs this sort of insight more than a powerful world leader?
Languages at the top of power

Discovering the value of indigenous languages

Breathing life and dignity into their language
Breathing life and dignity into their language

We do not value multilingual people in our culture. Some of us might lament the death of Bo, Chickasaw, or Klallam languages, but how do we back up our feelings with actions? What do we do to ensure the survival of the next languages to come to the brink?

We have to recognize the dignity of these languages today. Sadly, though, we ignore the languages spoken around us, neglecting the value they bring.

Usually…
Discovering value

Being American doesn’t mean speaking English

This is not the US!
This is not the US!

My family forgot, over the course of 2-3 generations, how to speak German (Swiss Basel dialect and Pennsylvania Dutch), Irish, Welsh, and Scottish. My wife’s family forgot how to speak Russian, French, and German. In the place where I live (Minnesota, USA), they forgot Ojibwe, Lakota, and Menominee, along with a countless number of European, Asian, African, and South American languages. (I have a coworker who personally forgot how to speak Aymara and Quechua.)

They didn’t simply “forget,” though. They were forced to forget. US society forces families and communities to forget. From the physical punishment of African slaves and Native American boarding school students, to the shaming peer-pressure of the modern suburban Middle School, our society squeezes the languages out of communities. Our society makes plain that to be one of “us,” your speech cannot betray any trace of the “Old World.”

Forgetting about the Old World makes us Americans.
Defining ourselves

Create habitats for endangered languages to thrive

Like endangered species, languages need the right habitat.

Language-preservation efforts focus on languages in the periphery, in isolated communities. I can understand how this works in the short run, but I don’t understand how this can work in the long run.

I am not satisfied with preserving a Native American language, like Myaamia, to live on a reservation. We, as human beings in North America, must find room for it to live and thrive. As speakers of any language, we must find a way to diversify the linguistic biosphere, or “linguisphere.”

An endangered language can only survive if it can thrive. Keeping an animal from dying in a zoo does not move a species out of “endangered” status. The only true success in ecological terms comes from moving more and more of a species into the wild.

That strategy begs the question of the continued existence of wild habitat. Often species become endangered because of a loss of habitat. When that habitat is threatened or destroyed, introducing individuals back into the “wild” becomes impossible because the “wild” no longer exists.
From endangered to thriving