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.
Most people would define learning a language not spoken in the “marketplace,” that is, in the public places where we spend most of our lives, as a “hobby.” I agree, in fact.
Languages, by this definition, are my hobby. But they’re more than a hobby. My goal is to bring more languages into the marketplace, to make language-learning less of a hobby.
Every public sphere needs to open itself to more languages. The goal is not to create ghettos, but multilingual space where multiple languages can function alongside each other.
The Miami University of Ohio has been performing fantastic work focusing on the survival of the Myaami language. One of its professors won a MacArthur “genius grant” for work in this area, and the university was awarded a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation for their Myaamia Center.
What happens, though, when the researchers close the books and turn off the computers? If I go to the hallways, the cafeteria, the bars and restaurants, will I hear Myaamia spoken? If I have a question about the center, can I call the center office and ask in Myaamia? If I’m a young grad student in the department, could I ask another grad student out on a date in Myaamia? If I can’t do any of these things, then this language remains as closed and academic as theoretical physics.
If we want languages to come back and survive, we need to make sure that a habitat exists in which the languages can thrive. As human beings we are speakers of language, and we can create the space in our linguisphere for multiple languages. In fact, we hear multiple languages in our environment—we have to ensure they have space to grow.
Here are some articles I wrote about ways you can create space for languages in your life to create a thriving linguisphere in your community:
Languages at work
Languages at (your or your kids’) school
- “International students in middle school: Marginal or model”
- “Community languages in schools”
- “The best school for polyglots”
- “Stop teaching kids foreign languages”