Many languages are struggling to survive. Each bears something to offer humanity, but a deluge of powerful, imperical languages push them towards extinction as children ignore the language of their forefathers and embrace the modern language of the world around them.
Polyglots wield the power to stave off this tide—if they choose carefully the languages they study. While the morality of polyglottery is rarely discussed, polyglots’ choice of language affects communities of people trying to hold on to a history and a tradition. We must choose based not on what merely looks and sounds nice personally, but on what will preserve the dignity of language communities, and the diversity of languages—an ecolinguist preserving the lingua-sphere.
I’m not big on “touristy” attractions like Disneyland or the Mall of America. I like to mix with local people and learn about the lives of others. For this reason, a wonderful tourist experience in Maui, Hawaii, surprised me. The beauty of the weather, the landscape, and the people surpassed my expectations.
Yet I also perceived anger, resentment, and sadness. I saw how native Hawaiians relished their times in the break rooms at the hotel, away from the “haoles” (those of European descent, especially tourists). I read about the history of the physically powerful Hawaiians, while I saw the current pervasive obesity. Poverty showed itself behind chain-link fences in the cities, while villas and condos covered the beaches. I spent time with locals in their public library, a simple, utilitarian structure without air conditioning.
At what cost was I enjoying myself? On the South side of the island, I was swimming in pools filled with water from poorer communities in the island’s center and north. Imported foods filled my plate, as the local land was tilled for cash crops like coffee and sugar. The locals ate imported food, as well, but not on a rich tourist’s budget like I was. And a huge number of locals were employed to prepare it and serve it to people like me.
This is the ugly side of tourism. I take in beauty with my eyes, as long as I look away from the people who actually live there. I lie comfortably on beaches where locals cannot afford to visit. I chat with other tourists because the wall of animosity cuts me off from locals.
Hence the rise of ecotourism. According to The International Ecotourism Society, “ecotourism” is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” The question it answers is how to engage and learn through travel, without causing unintended harm to the local environment and community.
Preserving the language ecosystem
I ask you, O Polyglot, how do you ensure that your language-learning adventure is not causing direct or indirect damage to the language ecosystem or communities? How do you ensure that your experience helps others rather than takes from others? Are you an “ecolinguist” who—according to my definition—“studies languages to conserve linguistic diversity, sustain linguistic communities, and involve cultural interpretation and education”?
Everyone who studies languages—and many people who don’t—knows that there are around 7000 languages spoken around the planet. More than a quarter of them have fewer than 1000 speakers. The longevity of that 1000 is tenuous, as they lack native speakers among the younger generations. As languages die, language diversity disappears, and the language ecosystem breaks down.
Is loss of the language ecosystem a problem? On the one hand, no. All people will have a language they can communicate in. As an ecosystem, languages fill niches where humans need to communicate, and we find a language or languages in every niche. If Chukchi disappears in Siberia, the people will not go mute; they will speak Russian. No one will go without language, and people will always find a way to talk.
On the other hand, yes. Diversity of language presents a panoply of views of the world, and establishes continuity with countless valuable stories and histories that pass along unique wisdom. Languages offer beautiful, unique ways of describing and perceiving the world, and stories present various points of view on the human experience. Just like a single, beautiful species of frog in Amazonia contains biological compounds that affect the human body in unique ways, a single human language contains traditions and thinking patterns that others do not. Diversity of language maintains a breadth of vision and wisdom.
When you explore languages, where do you look for them? Do you follow the crowd to the obvious, powerful ones, or do you look for the rare, delicate ones? It is time for us to examine the morality behind our choice of language to study.
In Hawaii, many careful ecotourists enter into the most sensitive areas of nature, and the simple dust on their shoes carries spores of invasive species that can easily choke out native plants. Environmentalists have to weed the beautiful mountains of all of these plants, as quickly and gently as possible. Tourists keep coming to these sensitive areas, however. They love the beauty and the experience. Rather than avoid these areas altogether, rich sight-seers’ enjoyable experience trumps the ecosystem.
As we explore the linguistic ecosystem, how does what we do affect the overall ecosystem? Many polyglots pick the language that feels nice to them, unaware of the effect their study may have on other people or languages.
Americans learn languages of up-and-coming economies, rather than of communities with deep roots in the US. In San Francisco families spend thousands of dollars per year to send a child to Mandarin immersion school (here is an example of over $20k per year), rather than to teach them Cantonese, a language spoken continuously there for well over 150 years (offered at a public school). They choose to follow money rather than support members their local community.
The moral polyglot
What do you do when you travel? Most polyglots learn the languages of empire, perpetuating the importance and spread of non-native languages. These are the most “practical” languages, that is, they fit easily into the linguistic niches around. Who do you know who learns Aleut before traveling to Alaska? Who digs into Warlpiri before going to Australia? Even Maghrebian Arabic for Spain? This would be impractical. None of these would even maneuver you out of the airport.
If you are a polyglot, though, you are already drawn to these languages. Why not learn Aleut, Warlpiri, or Maghrebian Arabic? When I go to the airport in Minneapolis, I prepare myself to speak a little Amharic, which is more common than Somali. When I bought a sandwich today at the airport, I carried on a basic conversation with the restaurant workers.
Don’t automatically flock to the chic tourist destination. You have to be aware of the potential damage you are causing in learning languages. As we put our energies towards a majority language, we spread the seeds that drive out the natural biodiversity. We have to aim for the rare, beautiful languages in the local habitat, and nurture them, rather than trample over them to catch a view of the bigger attractions.
O Polyglot, spend time caring for Chukchi and Aleut and Lapp! Don’t let them be lost among the fast-spreading Russian, English, and Norwegian.
We have to do our part to weed out what reckless tourists—even we ourselves—accidentally brought with them. Dedicate yourself to a little part of the ecosystem that you want to help thrive in its uniqueness. Learn Nahuatl or Kiche in South America, or Samoan or Fijian in the South Pacific. Learn the language, the stories, the history. Keep that part of humanity alive.
I already knew about the little Amharic area of Terminal C in the Minneapolis Airport. After I spoke to the restaurant workers there, much to my delight, the man behind me in line said, “What language were you speaking?” To which I replied, “Amharic,” and receiving a puzzled look I continued, “from Ethiopia.” Someone else learned about this lingua-diversity. He at least learned how to name the language spoken all around him—but which he may have never actually heard.
As polyglots we have a duty first, to do no harm. Do not spend too much energy on the languages of the strong. Be an ecolinguist. Second, we have to nurture lingua-diversity. We need to learn the languages of the weak, and speak them, and teach them. Enjoy their beauty and spread them. Spread ecolingualism.
How will you work to be an ecolinguist?