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On linguistic genocide in a globalizing world (The Daily Observer)

Last Updated: 16 Aug 2017

On linguistic genocide in a globalizing world
Avik Gangopadhyay

The Daily Observer

Published : Sunday, 16 April, 2017 at 12:00 AM, Update: 16.04.2017 12:33:30 AM, Count : 181

Experts say, only 600 of the 6,000 or so languages in the world are 'safe' from the threat of extinction. By another count, more than 7,105 languages in the world, half may be in danger of disappearing in the coming decades. In Language Death David Crystal estimates that two of the world's six to seven thousand languages are lost each month, adding the physical and cultural pressures contributing to language death, and cites bi and multilingualism as the key to maintaining linguistic diversity.
The authors, of Vanishing Voices, Nettle and Romaine, assert that this trend is far more than simply disturbing. Making explicit the link between language survival and environmental issues, they argue that the extinction of languages is part of the larger picture of near-total collapse of the worldwide ecosystem, contending that the struggle to preserve precious environmental resources-such as the rainforest-cannot be separated from the struggle to maintain diverse cultures, and that the causes of language death, like that of ecological destruction, lie at the intersection of ecology and politics.
Language is a powerful symbol of a group's identity. Much of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life of people are experienced through language. This ranges from prayers, myths, ceremonies, poetry, oratory, technical vocabulary to everyday greetings, leave-takings, conversational styles, humour, ways of speaking to children, and terms for habits, behaviours, and emotions. When a language is lost, all of this must be refashioned in the new language with different words, sounds, and grammar, if it is to be kept at all. Frequently, traditions are abruptly lost in the process and replaced by the cultural habits of the more powerful group.
To one count, among the 6,703 separate languages spoken in the world, there are 2165 in Asia, 2011 in Africa, 1000 were spoken in the Americas, 225 in Europe, and 1320 in the Pacific, including Australia. A century from now, however, many of these languages may be extinct. Some linguists believe the number may decrease by half; some say the total could fall to mere hundreds as the majority of the world's languages --- most spoken by a few thousand people or less --- give way to languages like English, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Indonesian, Arabic, Swahili, and Hindi. By some estimates, 80 per cent of the world's languages may vanish within the next century.
The Ethnologue catalogue of world languages, which is one of the best linguistic resources, currently lists 7,358 living languages known, as on May 20, 2015. About 6 per cent of them have more than a million speakers each, and collectively account for 94% of the world population. On the other hand, about half of the languages are spoken by fewer than ten thousand people, and about quarter have fewer than one thousand speakers.  According to the Ethnologue statistics, the top ten languages and the number of their native speakers are Mandarin (845 million), Spanish (329 million), English (328 million), Hindi (182 million), Bangla (181 million), Portuguese (178 million), Russian (144 million), Japanese (122 million), German (90 million) and Javanese (85 million).
Language death usually manifests itself in the following ways: gradual language death, bottom-to-top language death (when language shift begins in a low-level environment such as the home), top-to-bottom language death (when language shift begins in a high-level environment such as the government), radical language death and linguicide (also known as sudden death, language genocide, physical language death, biological language death).
Statistics on Australian aboriginal languages reveal that over 350 languages were spoken when Captain Cook landed in 1770.  Around 200 years later, only 90 survived as viable languages.70 of those are threatened by extinction in the near future. Something is known of another 100 or so. Only 10 per cent of aboriginal people still speak native languages. Only 8 languages have more than 1,000 speakers. 45 languages have only 10 to 100 speakers --- not enough to ensure survival.
Tasmania records one example of language death by genocide. Tasmania was first contacted by the Dutch captain Abel Tasman in 1642, later sighted by Captain Cook (1777) and settled by the English in 1803. The unique native population of about 8,000 people lived there for 35,000 years.  The sea rose 10,000 years ago and cut them off from Australia.  They spoke 10 distinct languages, and lived in groups of 40-50. Between 1802-1833, disease and genocide by English settlers reduced this population to about 300, less than 4 per cent.
SIL (originally known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc, founded in 1934) has grown from a small summer linguistics training program with two students to a staff of over 5,000, coming from over 84 countries. Currently SIL works alongside speakers of more than 1,600 languages in over 85 countries. The organization makes its services available to all, without regard to religious belief, political ideology, gender, race or ethno linguistic background. Ethnologue too is dedicated to restoration of language.
Today "Eight goals were adopted by 189 United Nations member states to be achieved" that offer a new perspective to linguistic revival and vitality:
Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Income improvement and hunger relief within ethno linguistic communities is achieved when life-changing information is communicated in a language that people understand well. Higher literacy rates often result in higher per capita incomes.
Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education
Primary education programs that begin in the mother tongue help students gain literacy and numeracy skills more quickly. When taught in their local language, students readily transfer literacy skills to official languages of education, acquiring essential tools for life-long learning. The results are the growth of self esteem and a community that is better equipped to become literate in languages of wider communication.
Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women
Nearly two-thirds of the world's 875 million illiterate people are women. In ethno linguistic communities, boys are often encouraged to interact with others in languages of wider communication. Girls, however, are typically expected to stay close to home where the local language is often the only language used. Research shows that girls and women who are educated in languages familiar to them stay in school longer and achieve better results than those who do not get mother-tongue instruction.
Goal 4: Reduce child mortality
The mortality rate for children under five years of age is reduced when vital health information about disease prevention and treatment is available in local languages. Conversely, poorly understood health information can lead to dangerous and even fatal misinformation. Ethnolinguistic communities are vulnerable to diarrhoea, malaria and other common illnesses when they lack the resources and capability to obtain essential health knowledge.
Goal 5 : Improve maternal health
A mother is better able to care for herself and her family when she is literate in her mother tongue and has access to health information in a language she understands well. Language development facilitates the introduction of new concepts and the accurate translation of new terminology.
Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability
Environmental preservation principles are communicated between languages through language development programs and literature production. Deforestation is a critical problem worldwide. As local populations learn appropriate technology while drawing on traditional knowledge of flora and fauna, they meet economic needs while protecting the environment.
Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development
Global partnerships among ethnolinguistic communities and national and international societies require communication and mutual understanding. Mother-tongue revitalization ensures that a language continues to serve the changing goals of its speakers and provides a bridge for the community to meet its broader multilingual goals by acquiring a language of wider communication. Language development facilitates the broader exchange of traditional knowledge as well as making the benefits of global information and communications technologies available.
Time is ripe to bring up issues of Linguistic Human Rights, since it typically occurs in situations of cultural pressure. Languages are human creations, and as such, they have a life cycle. Some dead languages are more dead than others. Languages whose writings are beloved never really die. Old English will be with us as long as we treasure Beowulf. Such an untrodden world of silence of the past is perhaps best captured in Four Quartets by T S Eliot,"For last year's words belong to last year's language /And next year's words await another voice."
Avik Gangopadhyay is an Indian writer and critic, based in Kolkata, India - See more at: http://www.observerbd.com/details.php?id=68890#sthash.OPHPVS7F.dpuf