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Can we save dying languages?

September 7, 2010

There are currently about 6,900 languages in the world according to Ethnologue  These are the languages that have living native speakers. Most of them are spoken by a handful of people. It is estimated that about 90% of these 6,900 languages will have become extinct by the year 2050. The whole language system of the world is in crisis. Small tribes no longer exist in isolation. Children learn the dominant language of the country they are in. Globalization and development contribute to the expansion of English as a global language. Spanish, French and Chinese are also used widely in international trade. Tiny local languages stand little chance of surviving next to these giants.

On the one hand, we are having a global catastrophe here as the world is about to lose 90% of its ethnic diversity. On the other hand, we have to admit that it’s a natural process and there are economic reasons for it: If we are to survive as a civilization and face global challenges together we need to understand one another better, and in order to do that, we need to form larger linguistic groups. So how to balance the need for global understanding and the need for diversity? Can we stop the tidal wave that is about to wash away most of the world’s languages, can we rescue the languages that are disappearing or about to disappear? Obviously we can’t reverse the trend on the global scale. However, groups of enthusiasts can do a lot to protect some languages facing extinction and even revive languages that have become extinct.

Manx is a telling example. Its full name is Manx Gaelic, it belongs to the Celtic language family and it was the main language spoken on the Isle of Man for centuries. Then it suffered a sharp decline at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries when the islanders began switching to English as a means of communication. The last native speaker of the Manx Language was Edward (Ned) Maddrell and he died in December 1974. The language became officially extinct. Then there was one man, Brian Stowell, a Manx Radio personality and author. As a student he had become fluent in the language and had recorded the last remaining native speakers. He led the revival of the language – producing articles, books and courses in Manx, translating into Manx, teaching the language and broadcasting weekly on Manx matters on the Manx radio. He is considered personally responsible for bringing the language back to life. Thousands of enthusiasts followed him, infected by his passion for the Manx language and culture. Now the Manx language, while still having the ‘critically endangered’ status on the UNESCO list of endangered languages, is spoken by more than 2% of Man’s population. Among them is a new generation of native speakers, who have learned Manx from their parents. There is a Manx primary school, and degrees in Manx are available from two colleges. So it seems that one man’s efforts, supported by a group of like-minded enthusiasts (and also supported by the local government), can be enough to revive a language.

The world will inevitably lose its former linguistic and ethnic richness as a consequence of the current changes but it can be stopped from becoming uniform. That can be done if, apart from individual efforts at reviving extinct languages and rescuing languages which are on the brink of extinction, people and governments care about supporting the national languages and cultures that are still going strong but may fall victim to the same globalization tendencies some time in the 22nd century. It’s easier to prevent than to cure.

Take any European language. Hungarian is the official language of Hungary, and majority of population speaks it, but unless people doing business with Hungary bother to learn its language, rather than rely on Hungarians learning English, the fate of Manx awaits Hungarian some day.  Unless governments, organizations and individuals actively promote the teaching and study of ‘non-mainstream’ languages, the world will become one big totalitarian society someday. I mean linguistic totalitarianism – the rule of one global language and one global culture. Someone may dream about it. I don’t.

If you are interested in learning more about Manx, here are some links: – Phil Kelly’s Site about Manx – Manx Language Society – Isle of Man Today

21 Comments leave one →
  1. jacobtullos permalink
    September 9, 2010 5:40 am

    I don’t know if any language is safe from the same fate as Manx, including English. Languages change. They die and they’re born. Thus is the process that’s existed since the Tower of Babel and will continue longer than any of us will be alive.

    That said, I do think it is a worthy cause to try and save a dying language, especially if I feel that the culture and sounds and beautiful words of said language are so rare and precious that losing them would feel like losing a friend to cancer, the cancer of change.

    I doubt Manx will survive another hundred years, let alone a thousand, but maybe by then we’ll have the technology to preserve all endangered and dying languages on computer file, keeping them available forever in the future for anyone wanting to learn and enjoy them.

    • September 9, 2010 11:57 am

      Thanks for the comment. You are right, languages have died and been born and it’s a natural process. Somehow, though, I haven’t heard of languages being born lately while they have been dying in thousands. So the process has only been going in one direction of late, unfortunately.

      I like the comparison of losing a language to losing a dear friend, because any language is connected to a culture and, with it, to someone’s feelings, passions, and memories. So losing a language and a culture is a deeply emotional thing like losing someone to an incurable disease.

      Let’s hope the technology helps us in the future. Maybe we’ll learn to clone speakers of any language then! 🙂 That’s a joke of course. I mean it can really happen but I’m not particularly inspired by the thought.

  2. September 9, 2010 8:59 am

    Very good post. Especially heartening in this dire subject is the experience of Manx. A recent topical film is The Linguists, which addresses the efforts of a group of professional linguists to help preserve endangered languages, including in Russia; if you’re interested, it is available for purchase on DVD. And since we just got off the topic of Esperanto, something else you may find interesting is that Esperanto could help stem the loss of minority languages (skip to the 5th paragraph).

  3. September 9, 2010 12:14 pm

    Just accidentally clicked ‘like’ and my gravatar appeared under the post so it looks as if I’d selected that I liked it. Now I do like all my posts, to a greater or lesser extent, but I’m not so narcissistic as to praise myself, so if anyone can see it and wonders, it was an accident and I don’t know how to un-like it! 🙂 I also think I uploaded a gravatar image of myself earlier today so I wonder why there’s still a purple mask instead of my face…

  4. Michael Farris permalink
    September 10, 2010 2:29 am

    Hungarian will be fine for the foreseeable future, it’s not external forces that kill languages, it’s internal ones. As long as no language but Hungarian is required to rise in Hungarian society, or more precisely, as long as Hungarian is needed to rise in Hungarian society then it will do fine.

    What kills a language is another lnaguage required to rise in society and knowledge of the native language isn’t required. This is the case for minority languages around the world, you don’t need Quechua to rise in Quechuan society and you do need Spanish. Spanish will then push out Quechua eventually though there might be a very long bilingual period.

    And there are other bad outcomes for languages as well. Indian languages like Marathi and Kannada aren’t endangered but they’re marginalized and the strength of focus on English (necessary to rise in Marathi and Kannada society) means they’re unsuitable for science and government and higher education through neglect. The case for sub-saharan African languages is even more severe.

    My (adlibbed but as far as I can tell valid) formula for the future health of languages. There’s a correlation between number of speakers and their class structure (and location). In other words, to survive, a language will need either millions of speakers or a middle class behind it willing to support it. With a middle class supporting it, a language can dip into six figures and still remain robust especially if it’s on an island (Icelandic, Maltese). With no middle class pushing it, the more speakers are needed to forestall replacement.

    The language loyalties of lower classes have little influence on societies and elites (however you define that) have no real language loyalty. The biggest supporters of colonial languages are the local elites who are protected by their special knowledge of the language of power (which they systematically deprive other classes of). See how quickly one language elite (English) in Ruanda is pushing out the old French language elite and how Kinyrwanda, the obvious choice for creating internal social mobility, is marginalized.

    • Svetlana R permalink
      September 10, 2010 11:32 am

      But then is it true that people can consciously influence and predict the development of a language?

      • September 11, 2010 12:58 am

        That’s a very big question, Sveta. To an extent, yes, but what do you mean by development here? One person can decree a language reform, which may work very well in a totalitarian country, so he will consciously influence the development of the language in that sense. But by and large, the development of a language is determined by the way society develops over time. I don’t think Stowell has actually been influencing the development of Manx, if only to an extent. It’s the people who have started speaking it that have carried the language forward, naturally rather than consciously. He just gave it a push.

        What do you think?

    • September 11, 2010 12:51 am

      Thanks for your thoughts Michael! Can’t it be argued though that with borders opening, the job market becoming more international and the internet becoming the main medium of communication, the need to know a global language, such as English, will eventually outweigh the need to learn one’s native language, such as Hungarian? And it’s the Hungarian middle class that will be most keen to master English because they will want to succeed on that global market. So what used to be external forces will become internal forces?

  5. Michael Farris permalink
    September 11, 2010 2:17 am

    alex, all that could happen, and it’s crystal clear to anyone paying attention that the EU in its current form wants to spread English at the expense of other languages (no matter what it says to the contrary). But as long as there’s a functioning local government and infrastructure in Hungarian that doesn’t require English to be a part of, then then external forces are minimized or kept in check with local forces.

    A widespread second prestige language doesn’t necessarily threaten the first language, it’s when a foreign language is placed in a privileged position that the threat comes in.

    And the middle classes are not traditionally into making foreign languages a necessary part of local living, that’s the elites. The middle classes might want knowledge of a foreign language but they don’t want it to be mandatory as they are primarily locally oriented. Elites have no loyalties except to their own status (that sounds Marxist and it might be, but it’s also pretty true).

    • September 11, 2010 2:31 am

      You wrote:
      > A widespread second prestige language doesn’t necessarily threaten the first language, it’s when a foreign language is placed in a privileged position that the threat comes in.

      I couldn’t agree more. I am all for a widespread second language; what I think we need to watch out for is that the second language might take a more privileged position than one’s native language.

      As for the middle class vs elite, I think the distinction is pretty blurred in Russia these days, but then I’m not a historian or sociologist and am not exactly sure where the middle class ends and the elites begin. If it’s just the oligarchs, they are not numerous and they don’t seem to set the trends in society.

  6. Michael Farris permalink
    September 11, 2010 2:45 am

    Middle class has to be defined for the specific society and may not jibe well with local perceptions. I live in Poland where the conventional wisdom is that the middle class is very, very small. That’s because in Poland ‘middle class’ traditionally means ‘professionals – doctors, lawyers, unvieristy professors, that kind of thing). But from my point of view it’s a lot bigger.

    If I had to define ‘middle class’ for Poland I’d make a checklist of things like

    – finished some degree after high school

    – takes foreign vacations (a big social marker in Poland)

    – owns a car

    – uses some private medical services

    – makes over X amount a year

    and a few more and set a minimum number, you’re middle class if you have X numbers of positive responses.

    • September 11, 2010 2:55 am

      Fine, but what is the elite then? I bet they also finished some degree, own a car, etc…

      • Michael Farris permalink
        September 11, 2010 4:14 am

        A higher threshhold, like

        – do you earn 100 x the national average (maybe should be higher)?

        – do you own a house in a foreign country?

        – have you sent a child of yours abroad for education for over one year (total time)?

        – do you have live in domestic servants?

        – do you more than X number of employees?

        – do you have a personal assistant?

        That kind of thing.

  7. September 11, 2010 3:17 am

    A good account of how and why the fortunes of languages rise and fall is Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word – A Language History of the World.

    By the way, I speak Manx and learnt it mainly from Brian Stowell’s Manx courses. I’ve met quite a few other Manx speakers and learners and been impressed by their enthusiasm for the language, and also for Manx culture, especially music, which is being revived along with the language.

    You might be interested in my dissertation on language death and revival with a particular focus on Manx.

    • September 11, 2010 3:28 am

      Hi Simon,

      Thanks for this and it’s great to hear from someone who actually speaks Manx! Thanks for the link to your dissertation. I’ll read it when I have a chance.

      Now you won’t believe this but Nicholas Ostler’s book is in my Amazon shopping cart at this very moment. I searched for books about languages of the world on Amazon this morning and felt that that one would be especially worth purchasing, and now you’ve confirmed my choice.

  8. Alexander Dietz permalink
    March 4, 2011 9:36 pm

    Yes, the task community can save their language by passing it on to children, be it within the education system, be it in the private environment.
    In order to sustain non-mainstream languages, I would like to see regional languages becoming mandatory subjects at school all over the world. The exact rules have to be determined locally as the situations are different. In areas where a regional language is still used by a majority of the indigenous people, the minimum study of the language required ought to be at a higher level than in areas where the task language is already strongly minorized. By effective teaching combinded with mandatory status, it can be assured that every person leaving school has at least some skills in the regional language. This will also keep those languages in the societal conscience and foster the outcome of individuals who love them and will work actively in favour of saving those languages.
    In Ireland you can clearly see that the education system causes that Irish is not forgotten in the society at all. It is a tragedy that it is often taught in a bad way which weakens the potential for coming active users seriously.

    • March 7, 2011 12:06 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Alexander. The Irish seem to maintain the sense of national identity and are keen to preserve their unique culture. Yes, I agree that bad teachers are a plague across the world and they can turn you away from studying your native language. When many students find it convenient to stick to English and don’t see the value of learning their mother tongue, the challenge for the teacher is to infect students with his/her love for the culture and national heritage, and this is more than just explaining grammar and vocabulary.

      I agree with your suggestion that local languages become mandatory, but once again, the important condition is that the teachers are well trained and genuinely love their culture, otherwise students will hate the subject.

  9. Alexander Dietz permalink
    March 7, 2011 4:19 pm

    I asked me, too, why you have stopped to add new posts since October. Poor man!
    But I hoped that you at least will see new comments. Do you know linguistic discussion boards being alive to discuss such questions?

    Generally speaking, certain teaching methods at school turn pupils off from the ambition to learn. There are certainly some matters which is part of general education and ought to be learnt by pupils at any rate includung not so exciting things. But suitable ways of teaching help to take off the reluctance from pupils, that they will see the sense of learning certain matters, including those being not that exciting for children and youngsters. I can acknowledge this from my own schoolgoing years. There were teachers where it was not that boring to learn something that I was not that interested in because he or she made a link to our own (future) lives whereas there were teachers where the lessons were sort of torture.

    Of course, this is also true for teaching languages. They can be taught in a boring way that turn pupils off. But especially languages can also be taught in a very encouraging way by using texts which tell about the culture of the country or speech community. With regard to indigenous or regional languages, this is even more relevant as pupils will probably have the opportunity to practice their skills regulary and soon in their surroundings. It is to teachers to show the pupils the links to their own country. In Ireland, I have noticed in Ireland that some (interested) pupils do practice their Irish language skills in their residual area. If there were more encouraged teachers at school, the number of pupils using their skills in their own lives could certainly be broadly enlarged. But some Irish teachers probably consider their job as not more than a source to earn money.

    It is a particular tragedy if indigenous or regional languages are taught in unpleasant ways that turn children and youngsters off. There is nothing more exciting than discovering your own heritage or that of indigenous people in your own area. By effective teaching linked with some other mesures to stop disrespect towards the task languages, it is possible that every inhabitant has at least some skills to understand and speak. If a language is still strongly declined, it is certainly difficult to make enthusiasts out of everybody. But at least, everybody will use the task language to some extent, for example if they are addressed in it.

    In countries of immigrant history, the most promising way of securing the future of indigenous languages is to spread them to some extent into the wider community. In Mexico city, the mayor takes such approach by making nahuatl mandatory in all schools for every pupil. I do not know if this meanwhile has been acted upon. But I find it remarkable that he has sayd that saving Nahuatl is a challenge for the whole society and not only for the indigenas themselves. In some Anden states, the mainstream culture has still many indigenous links as well as most people are partly of indigenous origin. Therefore I would find it suitable to make the main indigenous languages mandatory at school for everybody, for example in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay.

    In the other countries of immigrational history, this question can only be decided locally. For example, in Alice Springs, I would make it mandatory to study a local Aboriginal language because many people are of Aboriginal origin and/or still speak their own language. In Sydney or New York city, for example, such would not make any sense. There it makes sense to have a local Aboriginal language as facultative subject.

    The best for you,

    Alexander Dietz

  10. March 23, 2011 1:09 pm

    Hi Alexander,

    Yes, I agree – basically, it should be a combination of government efforts, grassroot movement to preserve the indigenous languages and also bringing up educators who will teach the languages in a way that will not turn pupils off. Everything is possible, though not necessarily economically profitable – that’s why the efforts are often so feeble and haphazard.

    I haven’t been following the blogs in a long time, but check out my blogroll, unless you’ve already done it, and then the blogrolls of those blogs, and you should be able to join some discussions that interest you.

    Best wishes,

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