No language was ever “lost.” No group of people suddenly forgot that they spoke one language and started speaking another. Or happily chose to speak a language just because the people around them spoke it.
Language-loss does not exist. Discrimination, shame, and social stratification exist, and languages disappear as a result. But they do not disappear: they are destroyed, violently.
We can compare the destruction of languages to the extinction of species. Species do not die off just “because”; violence is always the cause. Over-hunting by humans is a clear example of this. “Habitat loss,” though, results from violence. Human beings—either locally or globally—change the environment so much that species can no longer adapt to the new state. They change it through changing the flora, by turning environments into farms, pastures, or subdivisions. Or they change the climate through industrial and farming processes.
If we want to revitalize languages, we must create environments where multiple languages can exist together. We can’t just lock them up in some language museum—whether in a single geography or on-line. Our society has to make space where they can coexist. Currently, my society does not give them much breathing room, hence their tendency to suffocate and die after 2-3 generations.
Why can’t that language live in my society? We must ask that question if we actually want languages to survive.
In my neighborhood
Let me look at the example of the Somali language and its life in my local society. In my neighborhood, I know of one Somali family. Like most of the families in my neighborhood, I only seem them rarely. In my suburb, people do not interact much. Languages survive in the suburban neighborhood behind closed doors.
In my kids’ schools
In my kids’ schools, multiple languages exist, but few people recognize them, let alone celebrate them. A few months ago I went to a language celebration for the school district (which I described here). At that event the fringe celebrated the fringe; monolinguals were in the minority. Speakers of Russian, Hindi, Spanish, and Somali got together and talked (in English) to each other. Moreover, most of the kids were little. The parents decided this was important. Kids old enough to decide for themselves did not come.
One time I spoke to the middle school principal about starting a Somali club. He killed the idea through inaction, so after a few meetings that went nowhere, I stopped asking.
We had an exchange student from Spain live with us. She was invited once to speak to the Spanish class. The school showed very little interest in the potential contributions of a foreign student in their midst.
At work, I see little interest in the office with other languages. Practicing our Spanish or German is seen as something “extra” that we do in our spare time, like at lunch. Spending time learning a language on company time would generally not be condoned. Many people speak different languages around, but no one is learning the Hindi or Somali of Tagalog spoken by their colleagues. Only when we have guests come from another country do we hear languages other than English around.
At the airport
The airport should offer multi-lingual service, though, right? Here is a sign I saw at the Denver International Airport: truly an international destination.
How much help could I get finding my flight if I spoke only Vietnamese? How about Icelandic? (Evidently, according to this website, DIA welcomes only Icelandic men. “Velkomin” would welcome a mixed group.) Note that the directions for finding “A Gates” is only in English, without any international symbols. The international “welcome” is not actually very practical.
From these areas of my life, I see that little “habitat” exists for languages other than English. Here are some suggestions I would put forth to “till the ground” to make it conducive for languages to flourish.
- More public space. Suburban organization is defined by a lack of public space. Houses and streets. That’s it. We need spaces—parks, cafes, halls—where people bump into each other and hear each others’ languages. Our weekly farmer’s market in our neighborhood comes close. I hear Hmong, Tamil, Hindi, and Somali there. I have to drive there; it’s not where we live. We need to be seeing each other regularly, greeting one another, speaking different languages to each other constantly, if only in greetings to begin with.
- Recognition of the advantages of languages in every class. Every class, every teacher must include something about the advantages of a rich linguistic environment. Students can then begin to learn from one another. My kids’ school has the resources even now (as I wrote about here). We just have to bring them to the fore. I know that it’s possible, like at this school, to create “soil” that is fertile for lots of languages to flourish. Get the kids learning from each other.
- At work. Managers, like teachers in the schools, must lead on this point. We must make clear to our colleagues the value of other languages. If I get a resume of someone who is multilingual, I will always interview him or her, whether or not the other qualifications are in order. I tell my team that I am doing this, too. I convey to them my beliefs that experience among other cultures will help them learn quickly. Non-native English can be an advantage the job because they can clearly learn difficult subjects (like a foreign language!) and empathize with others who are struggling. We must bring languages into public spaces. I try to start language-tables to bring languages into a public place in the cafeteria. We must try to learn the languages of those around us, even if it’s just to greet them. That’s how I got started with Somali.
- At the airport. Denver International Airport, as well as Minneapolis and other airports in the US and Canada, employ greeters to help struggling travelers. Recruit local multilingual people. Require fluency in at least two languages to work there. When we had a monolingual Spanish speaker visit us in Minnesota, we sent her into the airport alone to fly home. I told her that if she ran into trouble, find a Somali. They are easily identifiable and more likely to be multilingual. A multilingual airport, employing local people, sends the message that we welcome and value our local language resources.
We have to look at the “niches” in our society to see where languages can grow and thrive. Fortunately, languages are very resilient. Given a little air and nutrients, they take off. We just have to continue to strive to create space for them.