Endangered languages challenge the smugness of the powerful

What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don't?
What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don’t?

With assimilation of language comes assimilation of culture, and as the language is lost, so is the culture. The longer we can put off assimilation of language, the more time we have to learn from the culture that accompanies that language. As speakers of a majority language, I must work to preserve a way of thinking and viewing the world that is different from mine.

In a recent article, one of my favorite language-writers, Michael Erard, described the tropes journalists use when writing about dying languages. Journalists make a kind of heart-breaking spectacle so we can watch these helpless languages go the way of the dodo.

I noticed that there is no call to action. While many people know about these sad stories, these stories offer nothing for readers to do. “Linguists” are depicted as tromping out into jungles and steppes to record the last gasps of the language “for posterity.” They are the amber that traps the last member of the species for future scientists to observe.

So what? Why care about dying languages?

Because you’re too smug.
Cultural challenge

Ecolinguism in Israel: Another place where languages go to die

How many languages can Israel allow to flourish?
How many languages can Israel allow to flourish?

The modern State of Israel recognizes two official languages: Hebrew and Arabic. Nearly all of its Jewish citizens came from somewhere else within the last 2-3 generations. When these immigrants came, they brought their language. Pressure from Israeli society eliminated the vast majority of their languages.

While 49% of Israelis over 20 claim Hebrew as their native language, according to Wikipedia, 18% claim Arabic, and 15% Russian. The other 18% speak Yiddish, French, English, Spanish, and “Other” languages, which include Romanian, German, and Amharic.

The language picture is more complex than at first glance. A language may include multiple dialects, each living its own dynamic. Some of the last speakers of certain language dialects live in Israel. Active violence has also taken place against other languages.

As Hebrew was chosen as the official language, its proponents put in place a system that does not give other languages space to live and grow.

Let’s look at a few of the examples of languages in Israel today.
Language survival

Arabs and Italians: Do we actually care about language death?

Fight for every member of the ecosystem--even for the less beautiful or "exotic"
Fight for every member of the ecosystem–even for the more plain and less “exotic.”

People talk about the tragedy of language death, but much of the worry focuses on losing the “exotic.” We worry terribly about indigenous Canadian and Australian languages, but not about other languages.

Recently I read about the dialect(s) of Arabic spoken in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which encouraged me to reflect on the potential death of the dialect of a major language. English is becoming so pervasive that children and even young adults cannot speak Arabic comfortably. The nonchalant attitude of the interviewees towards Arabic made me sad.

Also, I learned about the endangered Milanese dialect of Italian. The heart of a folk-music scene in the 1960s, it is spoken by only 2% of the population today.

Italian and Arabic: two well-known languages, not terribly exotic. No money is going into preserving these dialects.

Why do we care about indigenous languages dying, but not about other, less exotic, deaths?
Choosing survivors

Discovering the value of indigenous languages

Breathing life and dignity into their language
Breathing life and dignity into their language

We do not value multilingual people in our culture. Some of us might lament the death of Bo, Chickasaw, or Klallam languages, but how do we back up our feelings with actions? What do we do to ensure the survival of the next languages to come to the brink?

We have to recognize the dignity of these languages today. Sadly, though, we ignore the languages spoken around us, neglecting the value they bring.

Usually…
Discovering value

Create habitats for endangered languages to thrive

Like endangered species, languages need the right habitat.

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.
From endangered to thriving

Refugees are a blessing: Unlikely allies for ecolinguists

A lover of language and culture (from the church website)
A lover of language and culture (from the church website)

Over the holiday weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to a relative from Amarillo, Texas. She informed me of the recent controversy over refugees in her city.

The facts show that Amarillo receives the highest ratio of refugees per resident in any city in Texas. In 2012, for example, Amarillo received 480 total refugees, in a city of 195,000 residents.

To put this in perspective, the US accepts around 70,000 to 80,000 refugees each year since the number was reduced in 1996, and Texas receives the largest amount: 11% in 2015.

A controversy is raging in Amarillo. I will discuss here two local voices, one on each side of the issue in the Amarillo Globe-News: David L. Smith, a resident of Amarillo, and Pastor Howard K. Batson, head pastor of First Baptist Amarillo.

Natural allies for ecolinguists dwell in unexpected places…
Value of refugees

Looking for differences: Polyglots have a solution

There are a billion people in China. A BILLION people! That means that if you’re a one-in-a-million guy, there are a thousand people just like you.
Jerry Seinfeld

Don't always get stuck with people just like you!
Don’t always get stuck with people just like you!

Now that everyone can meet anyone they want, we can fall more easily into a group of people who think just like us. Through the internet and global mobility, people can meet anyone of any background or any point of view from any country. We have a giant pool to draw from. Liberal Muslims in Baghdad can discuss with liberal Christians in Seattle. Hindu nationalists can find sympathetic minds among anti-Muslim Nigerians.

This ability is morally neutral. For the isolated queer kid in a small town, connecting with someone of like mind can literally save their life. At the same time, Daesh can recruit among disaffected youth anywhere in the world.

Either way, our ability to live in an echo-chamber increases exponentially year by year as it’s easier to find people just like us.

Our opportunities to hear challenging or opposing views simultaneously becomes more and more difficult as we surround ourselves with people we agree with. This happens in spite of how easy it is to find opposing views.

As humans, though, we prefer to surround ourselves with people similar to us.

Polyglots, however, tend to surround themselves with people different from them. In order to learn languages, they have to find people from somewhere else, with different assumptions and world views.
Calling all polyglots!

From Mexican walls to the ivory tower: Polyglots smash the echo-chamber

The media doesn’t tell you what to think, but it tells you what to think about.

How can polyglots end people's isolation in their echo chambers?
How can polyglots end people’s isolation in their echo chambers?

We all live in a personal echo-chamber nowadays, where the same assumptions and world views repeat over and over. One’s echo-chamber, however, remains independent of the chambers of others. So their assumptions never reach my ears, and theirs never reach mine. Some of us want to build walls to keep out the Other, and some of us don’t want to venture outside of our walls to listen attentively to the Other.

After we live in this chamber a while, and here our friends echo it, we think that it is the only discourse going on, that our assumptions are naturally shared by all observant, intelligent people like us.

Until we discover how the Other actually thinks.

Polyglots can change the discourse and remind us of the true complexity out there. They’re already listening. They can save our country!
Calling all polyglots!

Polyglots needed as world gets smaller

Polyglots shine in difficult conversations.
Polyglots shine in difficult conversations.

People haven’t been listening to each other, and they are getting worse at it. The recent election in the US adds more evidence of this. The way our world is going, though, we all need to get better.

Here is the problem we face today. The world isn’t shrinking. It feels like it because population density is growing. We have more people and the same amount of land. Actually, water shortages and rising ocean levels mean that we have less productive land for more people.

Denser population means running into more people. People, on average, live closer to each other than ever before. That means more chances to meet and interact with people different from you, and more chances you’ll meet someone very different from you. Nowadays you have a good chance of running into a Chinese person in Nigeria, an Ethiopian in Oslo, or a Somali in Minnesota.

Polyglots, however, spend hours and hours training themselves to listen to more people who are different from them, and to more conversations that they otherwise couldn’t understand.

We need more polyglots—more languages, more classes, more teachers—to focus on solving problems created by globalization so our society to move forward.
Calling all polyglots!

Learning from immigrants through Language Love

What we encounter here is again the paradox of victimization: the Other to be protected is good in so far as it remains a victim (which is why we were bombarded with pictures of helpless Kosovar mothers, children and old people, telling moving stories of their suffering); the moment it no longer behaves like a victim but wants to strike back on its own, it magically turns all of a sudden into a terrorist/fundamentalist/drug-trafficking Other. — Slavoj Žižek, “The Fragile Absolute,” p. 60.


Learning community languages appears as a typically liberal approach to learning languages, yet it is actually neither liberal nor conservative.

Americans act strange when the weak “other” begins to gain power. In a recent episode of This American Life we hear what it’s like when the Somali community begins to gain power in St Cloud, Minnesota.

One complaint was that Somalis had “taken over” a local park. Another one was that a large group of Somali women were disturbing the peace walking through the streets loudly.

When they were in Somalia, suffering, the US supported President Bill Clinton’s military intervention. Americans wanted to end the suffering of the people so that they could live a normal life.

But when they actually live a normal life in St Cloud, many citizens wanted them to stop coming. Citizens wanted to remove them and prevent more from coming.

This cycle repeated itself multiple times in US history. We were excited in the North to free the slaves, but got nervous when they started coming in large numbers to Northern cities. We praised the nobility of the Native American warrior, but thought of them as terrorists in the 1960s when they demanded more rights in an armed struggle. As long as they remained victims, we were comfortable; once they showed initiative, they got too dangerous.

Continue reading “Learning from immigrants through Language Love”