Preserving language diversity resembles preserving biodiversity. I’ve seen two models of protecting biodiversity: natural preserves and zoos. Natural preserves protect species in a complete ecosystem, while zoos preserve individual species in isolation.
When most people look at language preservation, they take a “zoo” approach, that is, they approach the language in isolation. For example, the Transparent Language company is giving away its technology to preserve languages. Enthusiasts can thus create language courses for learning those languages that are quickly disappearing.
But can this work? Zoos run into problems because the individuals live in an artificial environment, cut off from nature. They can no longer go back. Yet species such as grizzly bears flourish on their own when the habitat, the biosphere, is restored, such as at Yellowstone. More than restoring individual languages, we must create a lingua-sphere wherein multiple languages can thrive without outside intervention. We must challenge the monolingual norms of many nations that are becoming more prevalent by learning and speaking and dignifying other languages. Healthy lingua-spheres
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?
“When you speak Somali to me, I feel close to you.” I heard this last week in Minnesota, not from a friend, but a complete stranger—a taxi driver named Mohammed. Upon seeing him, I immediately spoke only in Somali. “I pick up a lot of people,” Mohammed continued, “but when you speak Somali, you are like my brother—wherever you are from.”
Disappearing cultures cause me to panic. The permanent loss of languages and ways of life make me imagine humanity impoverished. Over the weekend I watched the 2010 documentary, “Voices in the Clouds,” about a Taiwanese-American man, Tony Coolidge, who reconnects to his Atayal (one of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan) heritage after the death of his mother. Coolidge connected with activists who are working to preserve the heritage of these various cultures from this Island. When I didn’t hear the Atayal language spoken, though, I worried about the viability of this culture in the near future.
I had mixed reactions to this film. On the one hand, the children amazed me as they sang and danced with such passion and skill beyond their years. Their teacher’s success is know internationally. The film also highlighted those who continued traditional handicrafts, especially beautiful embroidery.
On the other hand, I missed hearing the language. Most of the movie was in English and Mandarin. I’m assuming the songs were in the native languages. I did not, however, hear anyone conversing in the Atayal language. When Coolidge met one of the Atayal elders and introduced himself, the woman immediately asked in Mandarin, “Do you speak Atayal?” The answer was “no” and so the conversation continued in Mandarin.
To me, the rest of the culture rang hollow with the language; it felt like looking at a museum. Rather than living and communicating in the most normal way, which happened to be Atayal, the life and crafts and music were about preservation. It was like “living history”–but history all the same. One very old woman talked about life in her mountain village, before she moved to the city: “We used to sing in the trees.” They simply sang; they didn’t sing to preserve a culture.
When a people speak a language with each other, they are still producing new culture. Something essential is preserved with the original language. For example, if a people relocates to another place and starts wearing jeans and t-shirts, the culture doesn’t feel lost. But if the children wear jeans and t-shirts and can no longer speak to their grandparents, the culture is dying. When the kids wear “modern” clothing, but make up songs in their native language, the culture is perfectly alive.
Recently I heard a leader of a local Lakota community say, “If you don’t speak Lakota, you are not Lakota.” I don’t think he was trying to exclude anyone, but to challenge his community. Unless the people are speaking in this language, they are acting like their ancestors, not following in their footsteps. Loss of traditional hunting and housing have caused distress in indigenous communities, but the level of worry has risen as they see the viability of the language disappear.
Work to preserve a culture
The hardest part of a culture to preserve is the language. A workshop–or 100–will not make you an expert in a language. It’s a lifelong process of hard, beautiful, social work as you connect with those who connect with the culture on its deepest level.
Those of you who are learning a language, you are continuing a culture. Those of you who want to preserve a culture, learn the language and teach it to others. You and your conversation-partners will benefit by extending the life–both in time and in numbers–of another culture.
How will you continue a culture? Which culture? Why?