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.

Discovering value

Love and language

When two come to the table, they must submit to the other in love.
When two come to the table for a dispute, they must submit to the other in love.

I’ve recently been attacked as a “cuck” for being a “pro-diversity pro-immigration liberal.” Another person, described as a “liberal and a first amendment fan,” respectfully disagreed with me. (I appreciated the latter much more than the former, I have to say.)

What was the position that got me stuck between two sides? I believe that dialogue between opposing sides has to take place as a prerequisite for the two sides to come to an agreement. The winner can’t be chosen ahead of time according to ideological criteria. We can’t decide ahead of time that the immigrant is right, or the person of color is right, that the anti-immigrant or racist is right. They have to sit and work it out.

Tyranny of the majority is just as bad as tyranny of the minority or even of the one. The majority, even the “just,” may be on the side of one or the other, but it doesn’t matter when the two are at the table together. Might does not make right.

Two come to the table to work out their dispute on equal terms. This assumes that neither sees himself as greater than the other, but each seeks to submit to the other. This is the ideal that I aim at, one where each seeks to become wise by loving the other in humble service.

Language helps us achieve the goal of resolving disputes. The people at the table cannot come to an agreement without a common language.

As for me, I want to love others in wisdom. I submit to the other in order to love him, even my right to speak my own language. I serve the one I’m discussing with by conceding my language.
Language and loving

Schwäbische Schande: Dialect shaming in German

Is this a fashion statement? or just a bumpkin?
Is this a fashion statement? or just a bumpkin?

Shame plays a significant role in language. Everyone uses a language, and a society can distinguish insiders and outsiders according to arbitrary linguistic criteria. For example, one can declare that the person who says, “I’m not,” to be educated and sophisticated, but the one who says, “I ain’t,” to be provincial and backwards. What if we made a rule to say that “I ain’t” is correct? The rule is arbitrary, but it creates real divisions by shaming those who say the latter.

Germany teaches a standard literary dialect called Hochdeutsch, or “High German,” to all its citizens, while at the same time includes a dizzying number of dialects, some of which remain incomprehensible to fellow-citizens. Germany follows a strong national agenda, with the idea that Germany should be unified and so works to level differences among its citizens. One sees that the purveyors of High German shame speakers of dialects.
Dialect shaming

Furor on World Arabic Language Day 2015

How do we teach in the face of outrage?
How do we teach in the face of outrage?

Friday afternoon my friend told me to look at the news, that Augusta County Schools in Virginia closed because of a huge volume of outraged callers. The outcry arose from a religious-studies assignment for students to try their hand at Arabic calligraphy by copying the famous Shahada or “Testimony”: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Here is the assignment:


This was a cruel irony considering the significance of that day. That same morning I received a text from my sister. She knows of my language love and texted me, “Happy Arabic Language Day!” December 18 was designated by UNESCO in 2012 as World Arabic Language Day.

How do we celebrate languages among those who feel threatened doing so?
Celebrate, don’t retaliate

Microsoft is killing languages with Skype Translator (and so is Google Conversation Mode)

How can tech companies aid the survival of minority languages?
How can tech companies aid the survival of minority languages?

Microsoft is killing language diversity—but they’re not the only high-tech culprit. Google is doing the same thing. Both of them are developing real-time translating apps, where people can speak and hear their own language as they converse with someone speaking a different language. These tech giants are the new world empires, following neatly in the footsteps of empires, from the Babylonians to the British, who initiated language-loss millennia ago.

Sounds contradictory, no? How could an app that allows people to speak and be understood in their own language be detrimental to language variety?
How can tech companies help?

Hating Swahili: The cost of bilingualism in the US

Hatred of language: What can you do?
This happened for speaking the “wrong” language.

Advocating for a multilingual public space may seem abstract or a “nice-to-have” feature for an ideal society. A recent event shocked me into the realization that language tolerance matters for life and death. Hatred towards languages begets real violence against others. We must all embrace and engage in public use of multiple languages for the sake of those who would be discriminated against on the basis of language.
The reality of language hate

The US is truly a Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, “Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly.” And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do:and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth:and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth:and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:1-9)

Many Americans see multiple languages in our country as a threat. As I presented in my last post the US has suppressed other languages since its inception until today. We always see foreigners as a threat, but if they at least speak English, then they have assimilated to an acceptable degree.

Oddly, the rallying cry of the “English only” crowd is, “Let us not become another Tower of Babel.” (For example, Pat Buchanan says so here, and one of the authors of this article does the same here.) This implies that a lack of official language leads to chaos and the inability to work towards a common goal.

This stance shows that they don’t know what the “Tower of Babel” means. I’d like to go back over the story, so for this reason I cited the story, above. I hold a PhD in Ancient Hebrew and Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), so I place a lot of importance on the interpretation of the Bible. My aim is not to convert anyone here or make anyone religious, but to understand some of the historical background of this biblical story as it relates to the modern US. (If you are interested in hearing a discussion about this story that delves more into the biblical aspects of this story, please listen to this podcast episode of “The Bible as Literature Podcast,” that my friend and I produce.)
The US *is* a Tower of Babel

Myth: Our ancestors happily learned English

America's multilingual past, forced into monolingual present
America’s multilingual past, forced into monolingual present

A common language brings people together. Historically, learning English was a priority for German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and Japanese immigrants (to name a few) because it helped them participate in the communities they joined. And because the United States is still predominantly an English-speaking country, that practice should continue today.
From Dear Abby, “Sharing Common Language Is Simply Common Sense,” Jan 23, 1997

Because the United States was at war with Germany, those of German heritage were the main target of suspicion. Soon German language instruction was banned in public schools. Then, parochial schools were forced to use only English in their classrooms. The churches were next, and eventually Iowa’s Governor Harding declared that only English was legal in public and private schools, public places and over the telephone.
From “It’s the Law—Speak English Only!”

How English was actually established in the US

Immoral polyglot or ecolinguist

How does your choice of language affect other communities?
How does your choice of language affect other communities?

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.
More about ecolinguism

Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: No “pure” language

You can't keep language pure. They always adapt.
You can’t keep languages pure. They always adapt.

This post concludes the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain” and the second, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe,” and the third, Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Anything can translate.”

4. Borrowing words from other languages is par for the course.
This is a corollary to point 2, “Describe, don’t prescribe.” Many speakers of certain languages work hard to keep their language “pure,” that is, not to utter words from other languages while speaking their language. No language ever existed in a vacuum, however, as far as we can tell. When the first Europeans came to what is today the Northeast US, they found speakers of Mohawk and Mahican (completely unrelated languages) communicating with each other, and soon after they came, Pidgin languages developed between the Dutch and some of the native peoples. (See my earlier post, “A lesson from history: Languages in 17th century New Netherland.”) Surely words mixed among all of these languages.

How much more so today, when speakers of so many languages are constantly bumping into one another by virtue of jet travel and the internet? Every language is adapting to a new state of affairs.

While I believe that languages can’t help but borrow from one another, I still like the work of language academies, even if I disagree with their self-understanding. French, Modern Hebrew, and other languages have designated groups that sanction the use of new words. I don’t believe in the mission of keeping the language “pure,” but I like the resourcefulness and creativity of these groups. They look to the native verbal resources of the language to express a new concept. Hence the French word “ordinateur” and the Hebrew word מחשב maxshev entered into these languages.

Furthermore, I like academies because they help speakers not forget words of their languages in order to pass on as much as possible to the next generation. For example, I knew someone whose father is Navajo and a scholar of Navajo folk literature. He purposely uses obscure Navajo words when he delivers public talks in his native language; otherwise, those words might disappear entirely from the language.

How do you feel about the “purity” of your language? Do you feel that young or less educated people are “ruining” it?

Photo credit: melolou / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND