Can you preserve a culture without the language?

Culture is about how you communicate, not just how you dress
Culture is about how you communicate, not just how you dress.

Disappearing cultures cause me to panic. The permanent loss of languages and ways of life make me imagine humanity impoverished. Over the weekend I watched the 2010 documentary, “Voices in the Clouds,” about a Taiwanese-American man, Tony Coolidge, who reconnects to his Atayal (one of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan) heritage after the death of his mother. Coolidge connected with activists who are working to preserve the heritage of these various cultures from this Island. When I didn’t hear the Atayal language spoken, though, I worried about the viability of this culture in the near future.

Cultural relics

I had mixed reactions to this film. On the one hand, the children amazed me as they sang and danced with such passion and skill beyond their years. Their teacher’s success is know internationally.  The film also highlighted those who continued traditional handicrafts, especially beautiful embroidery.

On the other hand, I missed hearing the language. Most of the movie was in English and Mandarin. I’m assuming the songs were in the native languages. I did not, however, hear anyone conversing in the Atayal language. When Coolidge met one of the Atayal elders and introduced himself, the woman immediately asked in Mandarin, “Do you speak Atayal?” The answer was “no” and so the conversation continued in Mandarin.

To me, the rest of the culture rang hollow with the language; it felt like looking at a museum. Rather than living and communicating in the most normal way, which happened to be Atayal, the life and crafts and music were about preservation. It was like “living history”–but history all the same. One very old woman talked about life in her mountain village, before she moved to the city: “We used to sing in the trees.” They simply sang; they didn’t sing to preserve a culture.

Cultural viability

When a people speak a language with each other, they are still producing new culture. Something essential is preserved with the original language. For example, if a people relocates to another place and starts wearing jeans and t-shirts, the culture doesn’t feel lost. But if the children wear jeans and t-shirts and can no longer speak to their grandparents, the culture is dying. When the kids wear “modern” clothing, but make up songs in their native language, the culture is perfectly alive.

Recently I heard a leader of a local Lakota community say, “If you don’t speak Lakota, you are not Lakota.” I don’t think he was trying to exclude anyone, but to challenge his community. Unless the people are speaking in this language, they are acting like their ancestors, not following in their footsteps. Loss of traditional hunting and housing have caused distress in indigenous communities, but the level of worry has risen as they see the viability of the language disappear.

Work to preserve a culture

The hardest part of a culture to preserve is the language. A workshop–or 100–will not make you an expert in a language. It’s a lifelong process of hard, beautiful, social work as you connect with those who connect with the culture on its deepest level.

Those of you who are learning a language, you are continuing a culture. Those of you who want to preserve a culture, learn the language and teach it to others. You and your conversation-partners will benefit by extending the life–both in time and in numbers–of another culture.

How will you continue a culture?  Which culture?  Why?

Photo credit: betta design / Foter / CC BY-NC

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16 thoughts on “Can you preserve a culture without the language?

  1. I think it is sometimes possible to preserve a culture without the language, but only in a similar sort of culture, and only for a finite amount of time. For example, there used to be a lot of Gaelic-speakers in Australia (from Ireland and from the Scottish highlands), but the language wasn’t transmitted to younger generations from around the 1880s and the last native speakers died around the 1950s. At first, a *lot* of their culture was present in Australian culture – if you hear “traditional” Australian music or go to a bush dance, it’s very similar to Gaelic-language music – and a lot of the attitudes are similar, the way we say some things, etc. However, with the increase in American influence, you’re hard-pushed to find young people who have ever heard bush dance music – it’s now a novelty, just a reminder of what Australia used to be like in the early days of European settlement.

    But I do think it’s pretty impossible to preserve a culture without a language. It just rings hollow without the language. I grew up in a very Italian-speaking area – by that, I mean that most of the elderly folk and grandparents only spoke Italian dialects. Middle-aged people were bilingual and tended to prefer English with each other, and the kids my age couldn’t speak any Italian. The culture was still there – I spent my childhood eating panettone and celebrating carnevale and participating in grape-stomping competitions – but it always felt very much like it was for show. Another generation and the cultural festivities will probably be gone, too.

    Now I live in the German area – and the culture was very much alive until the language was banned during WWI. Now the culture’s there, but it’s just for show, just for tourists – it’s not genuine. (And I’m one of the only people under 90 in the area who actually speaks German or knows what Fasching is).

    And for me – which culture/language? Gaelic. Apart from that most of my ancestors probably spoke it, I just love the sound of the language, and growing up with a mother from the country exposed me to bush music, so the culture’s not all that foreign to me (although there are many, distinct differences between the two cultures). I love it! Unfortunately, this is about the slowest I’ve ever gone with learning a language, mostly because it’s impossible to find people to practice with (historically, all of the Gaelic-speakers in Australia have been in the eastern states – NSW and Victoria). Gaelic’s one of those languages that people learn as a novelty, they just want to learn a few words, not learn the language and immerse themselves in the culture (they’ve already immersed themselves in the quasi-Scottish-expat culture, thank-you-very-much). I’d love to go to the Outer Hebrides one day and learn it properly – immerse myself in it.

    Anyway, this is a *very* long comment, but I loved the post and you’ve given me a lot to think about.

    from Rachel.

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    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. It’s amazing to hear how the languages follow the same pattern in Australia that they do here in the US. In my dealings with Australians I’ve actually been more impressed than with Americans. I’ve known more than one who speaks the language of their grandparents, even more than one language.

      Learning Gaelic is a challenge, especially learning it properly. You’re right–going to the Hebrides would help. I have a friend who went to Nova Scotia in Canada to immerse himself in Gaelic, but that was in the 80s and 90s–I don’t know the health of that language there now.

      The reason I wanted to write this post, though, was to challenge people to do the work and the endure the ego-crushing failure it takes to learn a language properly. Good luck!

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      1. Actually, I was pretty impressed with America – bilingual packaging, bilingual wet-floor signs, I heard Spanish on just about every street corner (until I got to Arkansas/Mississippi-ish). The mix of language there fascinating me. (And if I’m being completely honest, was *very* useful as I had such trouble with understanding what people were saying for the first few days, getting some random to translate it into Spanish was very helpful… Television does not portray the accents accurately).

        At the same time, I was disappointed. I was keenly aware that anyone who considered themselves “American” didn’t speak anything other than English (English?). I heard a lot of disparaging comments about the amount of Spanish present, by people who thought it should be English-only. Even further north, when we visited Pennsylvania, I asked a couple of people about the language and some said that yes, their parents/grandparents spoke it but they couldn’t and didn’t see any point in speaking it.

        I think, in Australia, so much of the population has arrived in the last 60 years that even kids my age are only a generation or two removed from their ancestors’ country. (As opposed to the US, a country which is more than twice as old as Australia, people have been there longer). It wasn’t as noticeable with me, because my parents are from an English-speaking country (um… England).

        Usually for the first generation Australian-born, people speak the language. The second generation often understands, but would tell you they can’t speak it. The third generation (in the case of the Italians, my peers) only knows a couple of words – “nonna”, “pannetone”, “carnevale”, “vino”, etc.

        I think maybe Australia is still in the process of losing the languages, as opposed to America, which is a couple of generations ahead. That’s why you’ve met so many people who are bilingual. I’ve definitely seen and heard people, even just out for the day, at a café or something, who speak two languages and swap between them – English for their peers, Italian or Polish or Croatian or whatever for their parents. But I can pretty much guarantee that their kids can’t speak the language.

        I read a statistic which said that only 17% of Australians matriculate with a language. I have no idea how this compares with America, but I do know it’s far behind the rest of the world. I also don’t know how many kids are bilingual in a language which isn’t offered at a Year 12 level, but I can say with near certainty that most of the kids matriculating with a language probably speak that one or another at home. (A lot of my friends speak German at home, but are studying French for their Year 12 exams.) There’s just no interest in learning language if you don’t already know one.

        But it’s one thing to talk about losing the languages and culture of immigrant communities in other country – it’s another thing entirely for a community to loose their language and culture in their indigenous country. The north-eastern suburbs of Adelaide might stop speaking Italian and celebrating carnevale (and, strangely enough, start speaking Korean and eating bulgogi, but that’s another story), but the language and culture will still be there in Italy (the dialects might not, but I’m not going there). No-one really remembers that Gaelic used to be the second-most spoken language in Australia, but if people forget or ignore that it was/is spoken in Scotland, that when there’s a problem. If a language and culture can’t survive in its homeland, what hope is there for it?

        Well, that would be a dramatic place to stop, and I’ve certainly babbled for long enough, but there are a couple more points to address about Gaelic.

        I already know that immersion helps. (Immersion is the reason my French is so much worse than my German! and Spanish). And I definitely do plan on going to either Nova Scotia or Scotland sometime in the next five years-ish to learn the language a bit better. From what I’ve read, Nova Scotia does have a number of places for learning Gaelic, but I’m not sure whether that’s just the internet or whether it’s for real. I’d probably go to Scotland because I have relatives nearer!

        But I agree – it’s difficult to learn a language, make mistakes, understand a different mindset… but if you want to reconnect with your heritage (or just connect with any culture), you really can’t do it without the language. Just like you can’t really learn a language without understanding the culture and context in which it is/was spoken. Obviously it’s hard at first and there are failures, but it’s worth it.

        (That said, I’m not truly fluent in anything but my mother tongue, English).

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  2. I think that cultures fade away quickly without the usage of the native languages. Which is a travesty. The stories don’t have the same emotions or flavor, just like if you read a book that has been translated to a second language. Even the best translation still doesn’t always communicate everything perfectly.

    One of the reasons to learn languages is to learn about the culture behind the language! Through language you can understand the sense of humor, the different perspectives, and the values of the people.

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  4. I’D JUST LIKE TO MAKE THE POINT THAT CULTURE AND LANGUAGE ARE ENTIRELY INTERTWINED. I’M LEARNING CANTONESE RIGHT NOW AND WHAT’S BEEN STRIKING IS JUST HOW MUCH THE CULTURE PERMEATES THE CULTURE AND VICE VERSA. THE TYPICAL EXAMPLE IN HONG KONG IS THAT OF FOOD – IT’S SO IMPORTANT CULTURALLY AND THE LANGUAGE ITSELF IS LITTERED WITH FOOD-RELATED IDIOMS WHICH WOULD HAVE NO MEANING IF DIVORCED FROM THE CULTURE. IT DOES MAKE YOU WONDER ABOUT THE NATURE OF ENGLISH AS A LINGUA FRANCA, THOUGH. WHAT’S THE CULTURAL IMPERATIVE IN THAT, I WONDER? (Ps/ sorry for the caps! My phone is playing up!)

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    1. That’s a great observation. This is why I advocate learning a language if you want to know other cultures. If you know the culture, but not the language, you’ll fall short. If you learn the language, you can’t help but learn the culture.

      You’re right about English, too. I find a lot of folks who are interested in learning English for work, but not particularly interested in the culture of the USA or UK. But I still think they have more insight into our culture than monolingual English speakers have into other cultures.

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  6. Chloe

    Maybe it’s just me, but I fail to understand how you cannot learn a culture without learning the language. I see many people around me who don’t speak their heritage languages yet are very knowledgeable in their cultures. There may be things that may not be understand, but I don’t think language is the sole connector to culture. What about food, celebrations, other traditions you have? Besides cultures have been shifting and changing throughout centuries (even American/Western culture!), how much is it possible to preserve everything? I don’t speak Italian, but I do take pride in my Italian heritage and embrace it to the full. Am I missing a lot because I don’t speak Italian?

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    1. I think it’s great to get to know the food, celebrations, and other traditions. But, as you say, there may be things you don’t understand.

      Have you tried learning it? If you haven’t tried it, Duolingo is a great place to start.

      I think that you might find out some really cool things about your family and its country of origin if you learned some Italian.

      Do you have any monolingual Italian relatives? What stories do they have about the past, about the old country, stories that are unique to you and your family, as well as common to your country?

      Italy is new place. Rome, Sicily, Venice, Naples, etc.–those city-states are what make up what we call Italy. Significantly, each one has its own dialect. The residents are proud of their local dialect, too. Why might that be the case? Why does someone from Sicily hold fast to the dialect of their ancestors, when speaking Standard Italian would do?

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    2. I think maybe it would be better to say that you can get to know a culture *fuller* if you also get to know the language.

      While I can’t speak for Italian (my knowledge of Italian culture is just about as cursory as my knowledge of the Italian language), I can say that I grew up English-speaking in the Scottish expat community here. Whilst this isn’t unusual – after all, 98% of people in Scotland speak no Gaelic at all, but rather English or the closely-related Scots – and I embraced that culture to the full (despite it being rather more expat-y than genuinely Scottish). Since I’ve started learning Gaelic about five years ago, I’ve learnt a lot more nuances of the culture, the reasons things are done, better understood some of the mentality.

      It’s hard to explain the difference a language can make, and you don’t really know what you were missing until you have it. I knew the food, the festivals and celebrations, dozens of other quirky little traditions… but the festivals in particular mean a lot more now I have the language. There’s a lot of culture and stories that are so tightly bound up in the language and have never even been translated into English… since Italy doesn’t have a history of hundreds of years of English rule, I can only assume there’s a lot more Italian cultural stuff that simply doesn’t exist in English.

      But it’s all very personal, as well – culture is peculiar in that it exists at both a personal and community level. I don’t think it’s really fair to say “well, you don’t care enough about your culture to learn it properly – go and learn your language”. I mean, personally, I don’t think there’s every really a good reason *not* to learn a language, but it’s still a bit patronising to say “well, have you tried it? You don’t know then, go and learn”. For all we know, you *have* tried learning Italian. And if you haven’t, you probably have a good reason. (And if and when you do, you’ll probably find there are a lot of things that come naturally to you because you grew up with the culture that’s attached to the language).

      Culture but no language might be enough for you – it’s up to you to decide that.

      Language isn’t the sole connector to culture… but it is a strong connector. Since there are a number of ways of connecting, why exclude one if you can help it? Imagine if you had the language and the festivals, but not the food…

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