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

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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

What can language-preservation accomplish?

What do we learn when we open unknown languages to others?
What can we teach when we open unknown languages to others?

Last week I met a local Anyuak gentleman from Ethiopia, a people numbering about 200,000-300,000. He is excited about documenting more of his language on-line, and our conversation thrilled me while it made me think deeply about language-preservation and its goals.

I have always been a fan of less well-known languages. When I was looking at universities, I remember thinking about the University of Oklahoma because of their Native American linguistics studies. I especially loved my college course in linguistics field methods that taught us how to study a language in its native habitat. Language death makes me sad and frustrated. At the Polyglot Conference in October I got to meet the founders of Wikitongues, an exciting project striving to document all living human languages.

But last week I was giving this line of thinking a second thought. Am I just acting precious about languages? Languages have been dying for millennia, and but we only noticed it about a hundred years ago. Just like animals species have been going extinct since the dinosaurs, languages don’t last forever.

We learned, though, that when we affect the ecosphere so quickly that species die off very quickly, humanity harms itself. In the same way, studying the linguistic ecosphere—“ecolinguism” as I’ve called it—brings to our attention lesser-known languages. By noticing those languages, we challenge ourselves and our assumptions, while we learn from those on the margins.
Why preserve languages?

People don’t speak languages, communities do

Entering the community means unexpected conversations
Entering the community means unexpected conversations

I have often heard, “Talking to people is one of the best ways to learn a language.”

The truth is, talking to people is the only way.

People use all sorts of means to learn languages. Recommendations vary from listen to music or watch movies, to study books, memorize vocabulary, and post on social media. Modern technology changed the method of delivery of language data, but not the content.

Nevertheless, every method is preparing you to talk. As a baby, everyone learned how to speak their native language. Reading and writing came way later. Polyglots are judged on how they speak, not how much grammar or vocabulary they mastered.

How do you learn how to speak? You can’t learn how to speak by yourself, or even with one other person. You find a group of native speakers and you talk to them. You need a community.

When I learn community languages, I aim to speak to the people in my town who speak them. Setting speaking in a community as the goal of your language-learning will determine your success.
No language without speaking in community

Teaching young language-lovers

How can we teach young language-lovers?
How can we teach young language-lovers?

Last weekend I had a great conversation over Skype with my friend’s language-loving son.  Nico is 7, lives in Boston, and loves languages.  We talked so I could encourage his learning as a fellow language-lover.

He spends hours surfing the website Omniglot, when his parents let him, so he knows quite a bit.  When I told him I’m learning Farsi and Somali, he knew exactly what I was talking about.  He even started talking about the Hamitic language family to which Somali belongs.

He has some specific, well-researched interests of his own.  Dying languages fascinate him, and he’s especially interested in Austronesian and Mayan languages.  He also really likes “looping” writing systems, especially Burmese.  When I suggested the writing systems of Sinhalese and Georgian, he mentioned that he likes Armenian writing.  You can see how much this boy knows; my kids have grown up around me (they’re 10 and 12) and they were amazed.  I’ve always been a language nut, but I didn’t know this much till I was 13 at least.

Nico’s parents are not much into languages, but they are looking for ways to engage his interests more broadly, so I was brainstorming together with them.  Here are some things we came up with:

  • Volunteering to work with a refugee family;
  • Attending local ethnic festivals;
  • Taking language classes for children;
  • Visiting language sites, similar to Omniglot.  We found globalrecordings.net, a Christian missionary site that tells stories in various, very obscure languages (like Tzotzil, a Central American language that Nico happens to be interested in).  Nico knows these basic Bible stories, so he enjoys the familiarity.

I ran out of ideas, though.  What means are there for teaching languages to a kid who is just learning how to read and write his native language, and who is living in a monolingual English home?  Our culture does not have easily-accessible means.  If a child wants to learn English, the US and state governments offer many programs; if a child wants to learn a language besides English, the child is on his or her own with very few resources.  For example, in my area the Minneapolis Public Schools only teach languages in two out of all of the elementary schools in the district, and one of them is a French immersion school.

At the end of the conversation with Nico, I wanted to challenge him to think more broadly about why we learn languages; I told him about the responsibility the love of languages brings.  If someone has a talent of any kind, in my opinion, it is so that he or she can serve those who need help.  People who know languages have a duty to help people in our communities who do not know English well.  We can relieve a bit of their burden of always having to communicate in English and we can help make them feel a little more at home.  Learning languages, while fun in and of itself for us language-lovers, comes with the imperative of using languages to serve others.

What would you suggest for a kid who wants to learn languages, but needs to go outside of his family to do so?  What are ways that a kid can help and serve others with languages?  I would love to hear your input–I will pass it on to Nico.  I look forward to talking to him again.  Please “Like” this post if you think we should offer more language opportunities to our young people!

(Photo credit: DVIDSHUB / Foter.com / CC BY)