5 Common Misconceptions Surrounding Endangered Languages

Linguistic_diversity
 

Many folks – even within the language enthusiast community – are still having a hard time getting behind endangered language preservation or documentation efforts. At a glance it can be easy to write these languages off as marginal, irrelevant or even downright backwards but upon further examination it should become abundantly clear that in doing so we are pushing entire cultures aside in the wake of the march of “progress.”

Fortunately, endangered languages have been receiving a lot more attention in recent months than they have in the past.

Mobile technology and the Internet have been instrumental in the creation of various apps and other programs designed to help preserve languages and promote language education among the younger generations – those most pivotal in the continuation of their own heritage.

Despite this, there still exists a shroud of misconception surrounding endangered languages and the people who speak them.

I’ve created a short list of a few of the most common myths and misconceptions that many people still have about endangered languages – myths that I feel are holding many back from embracing language policy change and working towards a better future for estranged speakers and their communities.

  

1. Nobody wants to speak them anyway…

Indigenous languages often serve as the the linchpins that tie assimilated people to their heritage. As the language of their parents and grandparents gradually slips from the minds of the youth their connection to their past and to their people begins to fade.

These disenfranchising effects are felt most strongly by older speakers whose upbringing and youth may have been underscored by a community of speakers that no longer exists. The sense of identity that can begin to crumble as a result of language loss has been linked to depression, drug abuse and suicide rates.

These do not seem to me to be the symptoms of someone who is content with the absence of their language.

Believe me when I say that indigenous people, regardless of how assimilated they may be, usually want to hold onto their heritage and their identities.

More recently, and most fortunately, many younger members of indigenous communities have begun to show renewed interest in their history and heritage. This has sparked a sort of revival in communities throughout the world that has culminated in the creation of numerous apps, musical recordings, literature and the addition of an increasing number of native language programs to some school districts and universities.

2. Language loss only effects a small community or tribe…

The misconception that endangered languages are only relevant to the small (and often dwindling) population that still speaks them or wants to speak them is what allows the rest of us to disassociate ourselves from the issue.

By convincing ourselves that we are untouched by the problems surrounding language loss we are able to create a nice squishy bubble of ignorance that lets us think of endangered languages as someone else’s problem.

Sorry to say; it is our problem too.

We’ve already established that the loss of a language can severely impact the identity of a community or individual – factors than have been shown to increase the risk for drug abuse, domestic abuse, and violent crime. If you think these three Furies don’t spread their wings and spill over into “mainstream” society you’d be wrong.

I made an infographic not too long ago that illustrates these concerns more fully. You can check it out here.

3 English works just as well

Works just as well for what, exactly?

You’d have a hard time getting by in a country like the US speaking only Wompanoag or in Australia speaking only Wagiman, But we’re not talking about monolinguals here. These people speak English; most of them being integrated with American or Australian (or any ‘mainstream’) society.

English works for every day use, sure, but it doesn’t fill the void left by the loss of a heritage language, and it doesn’t carry much of the same knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation, often only through an oral tradition.

K. David Harrison outlines in his book The Last Speakers the often unique geographical, botanical, zoological or historical knowledge contained within a minority language and how the decline of these languages can spell the end for vast amounts of invaluable human knowledge – knowledge most often passed down orally for generation upon generation.

In addition to this; because a language is tied so closely to a community’s identity, it is often more comforting and more unifying to speak a native language within said community rather than a lingua franca.

Consider if you will; a hypothetical situation in which it was English, Spanish, Russian or whatever your native language may be, that was vanishing instead. Sure, perhaps you’re a fluent speaker of whichever language is supplanting it, but would you not find yourself faced with an identity crisis? Everything you knew and loved from your childhood and possibly decades worth of your adulthood, fading into unrecorded history – never to be seen again.

You may scoff at the notion that your language will ever come to an end, but chances are that it probably will eventually.

Just something to consider: every language has its use and is valuable to its speakers.

4. Clinging to old ideas

Returning once more to the subject of language relevancy  it’s important again to assert that almost all languages are important to their speakers. (With a small few highly unique exceptions – check out this article about the people who actually do want their language to die).

Doubt me?

Tell an Esperantist that their language is silly some time and see where that gets you. [Tweet]

English is a pretty old language. It has evolved and mutated considerably over the centuries into a patchwork quilt of tongues more or less totally incomprehensible to one another. Why should an endangered minority language be any more “outdated” or “old fashioned?”

Change is hard. If I told you that you couldn’t speak English anymore and that you needed to learn French and speak French exclusively because French is the future, how would you react?

You’d probably laugh at me and walk away, or get angry and fling crap – metaphorically I hope.

Just because a language doesn’t have massive wireless networks, a global Internet presence or a Wikipedia site with a million articles it doesn’t mean it is outdated, backwards or primitive.

Many languages, such as Navajo – that only adopted a writing system in the mid 19th century to “keep up with the changing times” – are now taking steps to keep up with the times. Recently, Navajo speakers have completed full translations of Star Wars, and are experiencing a boom in mobile and Internet support.

Despite endangerment, these are not signs of a language that clings to the ‘old ways’. Navajo – and many other indigenous languages – are more than capable of remaining relevant and perfectly modern.

Star Wars Navajo translation

Navajo, despite maintaining around 170,000 speakers, is still endangered, but its ability to adapt and the rock-solid preservation efforts of its people have significantly slowed the language’s decline.

In fact it almost seems to me that listing an indigenous language as “old fashioned” is tantamount to prejudice towards its speakers. In saying something like this we’re effectively implying that their culture and community is less valuable in the modern world and that they would be better off assimilated.

Which reminds me a lot of middle school bullying.

5. They’re going to die anyway

Yeah, yeah yeah, so that’s all very sad, my heart goes out to the speakers of these languages, and I wish there was something I could do, but the language is going to die anyway, so it sort of seems like a waste of time and money, doesn’t it?

Not so much.

Sometimes there really isn’t much that we can do to save a language on the brink of extinction. There are countless languages today that have only a handful of speakers, sometimes only one or two.

For these languages and their speakers things can look pretty bleak. It would take nothing short of divine intervention to prevent them from being lost when their (usually aging) speakers die.

However, it is these tongues in particular that are the most in need of immediate documentation efforts. Sometimes you can’t preserve a language, but you can do the next best thing – let it live on through recordings and digital data. Sure, it’s tragic to relegate a language, and by extension an entire culture, to a linguist’s filing cabinet or at best an online database, but it sure beats total loss.

Critically endangered languages may not be able to be saved, but through certain measures their lives can sometimes be prolonged long enough to create more complete documentation – and this makes the investment of time and money worth it. We don’t (typically) abandon people who are sick and dying even when they’re terminal.

Why would we abandon a language as though it has no value?

Conclusion

Languages, as a vital piece of cultural identity and oral vaults of history and knowledge, are always worth learning, preserving and documenting. These five misconceptions serve only to distance those of us who either don’t fully understand or don’t want to be burdened, from issues we perceive to not concern us.

What do you think? Are there other language myths surrounding threatened languages?

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  • Myers Tyson

    One myth I’ve heard is that if you aren’t of “that culture” then you can’t understand and can’t help resurrect (or document, or save) the language.

  • There’s actually a lot of controversy over who should be saving languages and whether it is the right of non-members to work towards preservation.

    I personally think that without public support it will be excruciatingly difficult for some of the most threatened languages to make a comeback. And the languages with only a handful of speakers remaining – the ones most in need of documentation – are not likely to be studied or documented by members of that culture.

    Very insightful, thanks for your comment!