The Inuit of Northern Canada are worried that their language, Inuktitut, will die. They looked to the example of another language, Welsh, that managed to come back from the brink, thanks to some creative and forceful measures. Inuit language specialists sat down recently in Wales to learn about language-revitalization efforts.
I don’t know if the secret is this simple, but here’s one of the most important things that the Welsh are doing:
It’s mandatory for schools in Wales to teach in Welsh from preschool to grade 10.
That means that the language is the means to an end. Welsh is not a subject in school; it is school.
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
This week I saw such a contrast, between passionate language students and resisters to language education. The two sides came from unlikely places.
The serious study of language reveals the commitment to the deep knowledge of a culture. That’s why I often talk about “language love,” because love is the deep commitment to another person or persons. One gives up part of one’s self to become a better self in the service of the beloved. Language-love, because of its deep connections, makes one a better person.
In Western culture, though, language education relates to a classroom, not love, not connection. My kids learn Spanish in their Spanish class, as well as “culture,” which includes facts about clothing in Central America and Puerto Ricans in New York.
Language-love, though, comes from dedication to the language. You cannot help but learn about the culture—on a deep level—by talking with the native speakers of the language. Once you love, you learn to see differently.
In the US, we see that language-love and education do not necessarily go with each other. This week I read about great language-love in poor, rural New York State, and language-haters in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League. Finding the language-lovers
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
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!
Last week I told you to do the minimum for language love; don’t try so hard.
Today, I want to give you some resources for how to start. Basic. Nothing complicated.
First, though, you have to do your research. You have to go on your ecolinguistic exploratory expedition to find out what people are speaking around you. What do you hear spoken? What do you see on signs, not the formal ones, but the hand-written signs taped to light posts and pinned to bulletin boards?
I recently met the inventor of Fetch-a-Phrase, a method of keeping all the key phrases you need for a language in your back pocket. You take basic phrases for you language, correlate the words from one language to the other, and then use the correlations to build new sentences.
You don’t have to be great at languages. You just have to care. You don’t have to be fluent in a language. You just have to try. You don’t need to understand everything. You just have to say something. You don’t have to impress anyone. You just have to do something for someone else.
But as much as this has been an exploration of the history of language in the United States, it has also turned out to be an examination of prejudice and privilege…. [American history] is genocide and slavery and discrimination
— Elizabeth Little, Trip of the Tongue (p. 252).
The history of language follows the ebbs and flows of one form of communication to another. It seems that human beings, born in the right circumstances, can switch from one language to another without much effort. One group spoke Hebrew, then Babylonian, then Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Generation after generation, language blends into language.
Languages don’t just ebb and flow like tides of the ocean. They fight, kill, dominate, and oppress, like warring chimpanzees. Hebrew speakers sent the Canaanites to the hills, before being conquered by Babylonians, and then the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs. Each power came and imposed a language of privilege onto the next group. No language disappeared without a fight. Fight for the marginalized
We are missing out on a learning opportunity as a society. Rather than encourage the perpetuation, growth, and exchange of language, fear drives out languages. Building walls to keep out foreign others takes precedence over listening to new voices that may know more than us. Forcing them, in spite of their past and present struggles, to talk to us in our language insults and degrades them and us.
Alternatively, we could learn the languages around us, and put our resources and our prestige behind teaching these languages to our children. Let my children speak to their friends’ parents in their language, while their friend speaks to me in mine—or teaches me hers. Learning the stories that come from “the old country” holds a mirror up to our society, revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly, for us to celebrate, to correct, or to apologize for. What are we missing?
After the Basque class this summer, I had an opportunity to speak with the teacher, Txili Lauzirika. He is a native speaker of Euskara (Basque), with a passion for the language. A teacher and poet by profession, and a sociologist by training, he offered me important insights into the survival of Euskara up to the present, as well as its continued existence into the future.
Because his training was in sociology and not history, he presented me some counter-narratives to the ones we normally hear about Euskara. They offer hope to the future existence of this minority language if we follow some of the basic principles that he noticed. Survival of Euskara
Ever since I planned on going to the North of Spain, to the Basque Country, aka Euskal Herria, I was on the lookout for where I could learn more of the local language, Euskara.
Euskara is a language unique to the North of Spain and Southwest of France, unrelated to any other language (though many theories exist regarding its unlikely relationship to other languages). For more information about the language itself, I would direct you to its Wikipedia page. I will focus here on my own experiences with the language.
When I went to the North of Spain in July, I had the opportunity to sit in on a class of Basque for adults at the Lauaxeta Euskaltegia in Getxo, Spain. This school offers classes to locals who want to become better at this language. They offer various levels of courses, and I sat in on the basic class. What I learned