On Language Endangerment, once more

A certain James Harbeck, author, designer, editor and blogger, has recently written a text on The Week Magazine on language endangerment and preservation where he really stresses the agency of the communities - which is highly appreciated. Go read it, it’s very good.

We’ve talked about this issue earlier on this blog, I’ll attempt at making a brief summary of points expressed here and elsewhere that I believe to be true and relevant to the issue. I am not entirely happy with the previous point, I hope I’ll improve with this one.

At least 2,447 out of 7,102 languages of the world are endangered. There are more statistics counting in different ways, for the purposes of this matter here just know that most languages are under threat and we are facing one of the largest extinctions of languages ever. This is a loss of human diversity and cultural identity. This is bad. In many cases it is a continuation of colonial ideas that the western majority culture is “better”, sometimes even so internalised that users themselves no longer value their language.

Linguists hold that all languages and dialects are equal, none is better or worse than any other and they are all worthy of study. Trying to communicate this concept is sometimes valuable to the language community, installing a sense of pride and worth that might have been missing. If we can contribute nothing but that, that can still be productive and useful even though it seems a very obvious concept to most linguists.

It is not so easy, though, that we as linguist have an obligation to save all languages. I’ll try to discuss why this is.

Language users in many cases may have access to a better standard of life if they also become proficient in a larger language - they can get education, travel, interact with authorities etc. (Here’s a study on economic growth being a driver of language extinction for example.) Often they feel shame for the language and it might also be downgraded by the surrounding society. These are external factors, in the ideal world no-one would have to abandon their own cultural identity to obtain a higher standard of living. Multilingualism is not impossible, in fact it is probably the more common state of the human condition than monolingualism and better for the health of our brains.

However, if language users do not want to continue using their language it is not the place of the linguists to argue otherwise, we are scientists and this is their language - to lose or to hold. We can communicate this concept of linguistic equality and offer aid in revitalisation and preservation. There might be cases that work of this kind might change the attitudes in the language community. Negative attitudes because the don’t believe their language is important, valuable or interesting is not a reason for a linguist to not work with the community. We can insist - asking, recording, creating pedagogical material and so on - but we cannot at any point remove the agency of the community and say that we know better what they should do. We can document, preserve and analyse the language for the benefit of research and future generations. We might even be able to assist if later on the community wants to revitalise the language.

We want to explore the human condition and the human mind by investigating what we are capable of when it comes to one of the few traits that make us stand out in the animal kingdom - language. We as researchers of linguistics and anthropology don’t have enough data today. We want to study as many languages as possible before they go extinct. Many times when people want to answer the question “why should we care that languages are dying?” they end up instead addressing “why should we care that they are dying before we can document them?”. This is a fallacy and does not help the cause.

The reasons we should care that they are dying is because it is a continuation of downgrading non-majority culture and a continuation of colonialism, often coupled with racism. It is a loss of diversity to the world and a loss of identity to the community. It is coupled with the history and current reality of oppression on basis of class, ethnicity and race.

We shouldn’t participate in this fight by appropriating the agency of the communities. We cannot ignore the economic reality of these communities, even if we don’t agree with that reality and wish we could change it. This paternalistic way of acting on the behalf of others is not an opinion often expressed by linguists, but it is sometimes present as an underlying assumption and/or indirectly communicated outwards. We shouldn’t simplify the issue like that, it is not useful or productive to science or to the struggle of the communities. It creates misconceptions among the public and detaches the loss of language and culture to the all the different kinds of oppression faced by these communities.

At times messages of this kind by intelligent and well-meaning linguists are taken as “we just need to document all languages once, and then we can all melt into global English” - and that’s not the point.

We can communicate the worth and interestingness of all languages and provide support. We can participate in the non-scientific and important fight against oppression and discrimination of all kind. Speaking as a white middle-class person with degrees of higher education: as privileged people we have so much to give, so very much. This is a non-scientific issue, as is language activism. It makes it no less important for the life of a diversity linguist.

Involving language users actively in our research, promoting their education and their study of their own culture is very important and hopefully makes for better science as well. Devoting time to working with these communities on their language and on their own terms, recording and preserving their language for future generation and current research is necessary and good.

Linguists need to communicate these ideas

all languages and dialects are equal in worth
multilingualism is not harmful, in fact it is good
studying human diversity is important

I’m not going to pretend that this is easy. It is not. This is hard. I personally feel a sadness at the loss of languages and culture despite users not feeling the same way. However, I cannot approach people like tokens in a zoo. They’re people and any study of people will always be linked to everything that makes up the human experience, we cannot isolate parts. To isolate parts is to reduce reality.

So, the points I want to get across are these:

acting on behalf of someone else is not kind
we can make a difference by being present and working with the communities
we can participate in the larger struggle against all kinds of oppression
one cannot deal with language alone when addressing matters of loss of cultural identity, to pretend that we can isolate parts in that way is not good
the point is not “the information these languages can give us”, that is just a reason to record them all once - not to keep using them
failing at communicating these points will be counter-productive as it will not explain the issues to the public or the communities in question in a true and pragmatic way

I hope I phrased myself well this time, last time I believe I wasn’t very well put. Thank you for your time and I hope I have made no mistakes or misunderstandings. I understand that this is not a linguistic post per se, these opinions expressed here are my own. As a scientist I wish I could keep discussions on language and language endangerment isolated from the rest of the political discourse, but this is not true and would be oversimplifying the matter in an disrespectful and inappropriate way.