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

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

I saw language loss happen

Every language in the US is on the verge of death. How do you give it life?
Every language in the US is on the verge of death. How do you give it life?

I can see language loss happening under my nose. It’s a process that takes years, but when you see it, you despair for the health of a language.

This week I took my kids to get yogurt, and the young cashier was Somali-American. She had an American look to her, even though she wore a hijab. My daughter thought she might go to her school. I greeted her in Somali.

Maalin wanaagsan! “Good day!”

She gave me a blank look.

That’s when I saw it happen.
Language death