Preserving language diversity resembles preserving biodiversity. I’ve seen two models of protecting biodiversity: natural preserves and zoos. Natural preserves protect species in a complete ecosystem, while zoos preserve individual species in isolation.
When most people look at language preservation, they take a “zoo” approach, that is, they approach the language in isolation. For example, the Transparent Language company is giving away its technology to preserve languages. Enthusiasts can thus create language courses for learning those languages that are quickly disappearing.
But can this work? Zoos run into problems because the individuals live in an artificial environment, cut off from nature. They can no longer go back. Yet species such as grizzly bears flourish on their own when the habitat, the biosphere, is restored, such as at Yellowstone. More than restoring individual languages, we must create a lingua-sphere wherein multiple languages can thrive without outside intervention. We must challenge the monolingual norms of many nations that are becoming more prevalent by learning and speaking and dignifying other languages.
In nature preserves like national parks in the US, development is kept to a minimum so that animal and plant species can grow and live with the least contact with humans. National Geographic recently presented an article about the “wildness” of Yellowstone and other national parks. Threatened species are thriving because of, as the author wrote, “Habitat, habitat, habitat.” By restoring the habitat, the species grow and become strong with little human intervention.
Zoos allow, in contrast, particular species to survive, but only in small numbers and they do not interact with each other. In nature, animals and plants live and gain nutrients from the habitat in which they evolved to live, so they thrive. In zoos, animals are confined and eat food managed by the zoo. They cannot interact with other species or other environmental factors to keep their brains healthy. Zookeepers have to create special conditions so that they reproduce, as well; otherwise, the zoo loses its “specimens.”
Creating natural language preserves
Language preservation these days resembles zoos. Take an endangered species, keep it close at hand, and study the heck out of it. Learn what you can from it before it disappears forever. (See this TEDx Talk for an example.)
The deeper cause of language death is not addressed; habitat loss causes the death of languages, just as it does for flora and fauna. Rather than simply squeeze the last bits of life from languages on the brink of extinction, we need to use them to preserve the next line of threatened languages. We will soon lose the languages with hundreds of speakers left. How do we prevent the loss of languages with thousands of speakers? of tens of thousands?
We need to create ecosystems—linga-spheres—where multiple languages can thrive. They exist now and have existed for a long time. Languages don’t need a vacuum to survive. Languages can live well right next to each other. India enjoys over 20 official languages, alongside hundreds of unofficial ones. Upon the arrival of Europeans to North America in the 17th century, tribes of different languages lived right next to each other, learning the language of the other for the sake of trade. The Bible even describes kings in the seventh century BCE who speak Aramaic in addition to “Judean” (Hebrew), though the people do not know Aramaic (2 Kings 18:26). Animals in Yellowstone won’t be free of human contact; the humans just don’t disrupt how the animals carry out their lives.
Today we can take actions to create an atmosphere for multiple languages to thrive.
- Learn another language. In this way, we can show that we will work for this multilingual society.
- Talk positively about languages and their importance. Some people think that multiple languages cause difficulties and tension, but educate them about the usefulness of multiple languages, from cognitive advantages to commercial possibilities.
- When you hear languages other than the dominant one, find out more. Ask what language it is, when they speak it, how often they speak it. When you show interest, you encourage languages to come out into the public realm where they stand a chance of surviving.
- Organize. Bring people together who speak different languages. Start a group at the library or at a coffee shop. Talk about educating children in “heritage” languages and about bilingual education.
- Teach your children. Teach your children your language, or find someone to teach them another language—whether at school or elsewhere.
Languages evolved to be spoken, to tell stories, to express emotion, to connect with family, friends, and community. When we do the activities I enumerated or similar ones, we carve out our own linguistic Yellowstone, where languages can thrive, not in isolated communities or on the internet, but in everyday speech, just as they evolved to do. Dying languages will only live if we consciously set aside space in our society and our individual lives for them.