A Guide to Endangered Languages.

Not exactly a new topic around these parts, but I thought Ben Macaulay’s take on it was more thoughtful and detailed than others I’ve seen, and even has audio files of the languages he highlights. He begins:

“Why don’t we just let all the languages die out?”, or some variant thereof, is the second question anyone asks me when I tell them I’m a linguist. (The first question is “How many languages do you speak?”) While that’s very jarring, I understand where the notion is coming from. The purpose of language is communication. What would be more efficient for communication, having to navigate the seven thousand languages that currently exist or just a few?

This idea makes it particularly difficult for people outside of linguistics to see language endangerment and extinction as an emergency. Those more inclined towards social justice might realize that language is one of the strongest bonds that holds a culture together, and the fact that a language is only spoken by a small community does not make it less worthy of respect. However, the need to keep languages alive runs even deeper than altruism.

Linguistics, or the investigation of patterns within and across languages, has yielded findings that not only shed light on the details, but on other areas such as auditory/visual perception and cognition in general. These findings increase exponentially with the number of languages that are documented and allowed to thrive and develop into new language states.
[…]

Keeping that in mind, let’s look at some examples of endangered languages and the different circumstances that put them at risk. To start is an example of a language with no tie to the linguistic community: not only does it lack the resources offered to documented endangered languages, but we actually don’t know whether there are still speakers or not.

Under one of them he says, “You may know Ayapa Zoque by its Spanish name, Ayapaneco. This language was the subject of a Vodafone marketing gimmick and started a trend of endangered language thinkpieces starting with a 2011 article in The Guardian.” This is leagues above those thinkpieces; check it out. (Thanks for the link, Parry!)

Comments

  1. Macauley has another article on the site with a similar combination of accessibility and not-afraid-to-actually-do-linguistics-ity: Innocent misperception: the linguistics of Starbucks name fails.

  2. Probably, the only thing that does not need to justify itself is cancer research.
    The argument about preserving languages in order to study them is very weak. The other one, that it increases the well-being of people whose language is preserved is, of course, valid and should be put forward forcefully.

  3. D.O.: I agree.

    Macauley says, “Those more inclined towards social justice might realize that language is one of the strongest bonds that holds a culture together, and the fact that a language is only spoken by a small community does not make it less worthy of respect. However, the need to keep languages alive runs even deeper than altruism.”

    It sounds like a doctor who says to you, “Of course, one may well argue that you should feel well, but there’s a lot more to it than that,” and then talks at length about how interesting your case is to medical science.

  4. The whole area of language obsolescence would be much helped by a clear and concrete statement, on the part of linguists, of exactly what is lost when a language “dies”. I myself worked in language maintenance in the early 70s, and I’m sorry to say I’ve never seen real arguments. Most appeals seem to me vague and emotional. The Macaulay piece to its credit goes beyond that and stresses loss of data, but as we all know the vast majority of languages ever spoken are unattested, and I have been told (here, in fact) that this is not a problem if languages are not independent of one another.

  5. “language is one of the strongest bonds that holds a culture together”

    Hypercorrection?

  6. I wonder where the read that derivation of komanam from Vedda (Veddah is a minority spelling I think). Madras Lexicon says kOmaNam is colloq of kOvaNm which is from the Sanskrit kaupina.

    The argument about preserving languages in order to study them is very weak.

    I find it powerful actually — not just linguistic information or botanical knowledge what Vedda can tell us (literally!) about early history…

  7. I think Macaulay is making too strong a statement for the value of languages as fodder for linguistics. He implies that if the last speaker of Yidiny had died shortly earlier, linguists would not now know much of what they know about prosody. I’m not a linguist so I don’t know the research, but this can’t reasonably be right. Yidiny is not the magic ur-source of prosody. It could be historically the case that important thinking came out of study of Yidiny, but could another language not have sparked it? Yidiny may even be the only known example of a certain language feature vector, but couldn’t some other language form a similar cross-linguistic relation to drive the theory? There just can’t be that much volume of linguistic theory squeezed out of whether we happen to know a particular language. (Though some linguistic theory does lean heavily on binary facts like existence/nonexistence, rather than continuous variables like incidence, soooo it could be that linguists just pay little mind to what I happen to find epistemologically sound.)

    I believe that languages are worth saving because they’re valuable to people.

    And sure, it’s okay to proselytize a *little* bit if they don’t seem to have anticipated what they could lose. But if you are trying to save somebody’s language and they tell you they would rather some other help instead, think about what your goal is.

  8. On many levels this is similar to the endangered species scenerio. If we can just freeze a bunch of germ cells, seeds, tissues, or whatever, and sequence the whole genome, then why not let it go extinct? If we needed to, we could bring it back in a hundred years.

    Languages are to a culture, what a living organism is to an ecosystem. Even if and when you ‘bring them back,’ they have lost something. They have lost the interacting parts.

    Also, they are each evolving. What you can save is never more than still frames from a film.

  9. On arguments in favour of preserving minority languages – I have a view, a minority view, perhaps, that this issue is an issue of liberty. Why have so many languages, why not let them die out? It is the same argument that was put forward in not so recent totalitarian cultures. Why have two hundred different types of toothbrushes, or toothpaste, or whatever, why not let them have just one? Freedom to speak, write, read, teach, sing in your own language is an inherent part of freedom in general. There parts today where people are ostrasised, persecuted and even put into prison for promoting minority languages and cultures. For fear of nationalism and secession.
    Language diversity is the cultural equivalent of biodiversity.
    It may also be regarded as issue of security and self-preservation. Remember the role Navajo Indians language ‘code’ played in the war in the Pacific? No Japanese expert could break signals transmitted in Navajo.

  10. If the people involved are not interested in saving their language, the matter is, strictly speaking, of academic interest. This isn’t a diss – I’m using the term academic in its meaning of “only of interest to people in the academy.” Trying to spin it as something of vast cultural importance isn’t going to fly with the people responsible for allocating increasingly scarce funds.

    Cultural assimilation, whether accomplished by force or by less unpleasant means, is a fact of history and cultural interaction.

    My suspicion is that the effort would be better spent trying to dig linguistics out of the hole that Chomsky dug for it.

  11. J. W. Brewer says:

    The phrasing “why don’t we just let” etc. implies that “we” are actually in full control of the situation and could easily cause one outcome or another for any particular language if we just decided that’s what we (the same rather vague “we”) want to happen. That seems both naive and hubristic.

  12. why? There isn’t a full, but a degree of ‘control’ in the sense of a collective determined effort of an educated nationalist minded group. Hebrew and Welsh were dead languages at some point, and were revived. When did Afrikaans become a language? Or is Flemish the same as Dutch? Ukrainian and Belorussian didn’t exist until after the misnomered Partitions of Poland.

  13. J. W. Brewer says:

    I assume the “we” in context is not the current speakers of some particular endangered language but vaguely well-meaning affluent white Westerners (i.e. the sort of people the author interacts with socially outside linguistics-specific circles) whose own L1’s are not at all threatened.

  14. J. W. Brewer says:

    FWIW, my one connection in Flemish-nationalist circles (who may or may not be entirely representative, although I suspect he does represent the current usage of the elite/leadership strata of the separatist/nationalist community) calls the language the Flemings speak “Dutch” in English and I’m pretty sure he calls it “Nederlands” in . . . in . . . whatever you want to call his L1. Certainly the “West-Vlaams” wikipedia is so tiny compared to the Dutch one (even smaller than the Walloon/Walon one . . ., and the regular-Dutch one rather strikingly has more articles than the regular-French one — even though you’d think virtually every Dutch wikipedia contributor could probably read English perfectly well) as to suggest that most Flemish nationalists do not regard having a separate-from-Dutch wikipedia as an important goal.

  15. I assume the “we” in context is not the current speakers of some particular endangered language but vaguely well-meaning affluent white Westerners (i.e. the sort of people the author interacts with socially outside linguistics-specific circles) whose own L1′s are not at all threatened.

    You seem awfully contemptuous; are “vaguely well-meaning affluent white Westerners” not allowed to have opinions about things that do not directly affect their lives? And are you really so confident that it is only such people who care about dying languages, while the people who speak them are eager to let them go, held back only by the lash of vaguely well-meaning affluent white Westerners?

  16. Sounds like the Dutch-Flemish issue is an example of the emphasizing of small differences known as “pseudospeciation”, a term coined by the psychologist Erik Erikson around 1966. One also speaks of the Narzißmus der kleinen Differenzen. A well-known Amerindian example is Pima-Papago: the two languages are nearly identical but the tribes, if I remember correctly, insisted on separate language revitalization programs.

    There is very little that can be done once the only speakers of a language are in their last years. In my government-funded project, WNALP (Wisconsin Native American Languages Project), we concentrated on creating elementary-school-level teaching materials for the five NA languages spoken in the state. (A bunch of doctoral candidates “cutting out paper-dolls,” as Algonquianist Ives Goddard put it at the time.) Working with elderly native speakers, we produced such materials for all five Wisconsin native languages for three years, but the only maintenance program to my knowledge still ongoing is that of Winnebago (Hochank). That language, however, alone of the five languages, was not really moribund; children were still speaking it when I was there.

    One thing we found may be general and is worth mentioning. The people themselves did not seem to regard the languages as “real languages”. It seemed odd to them to take the languages that they themselves used only sporadically, for joking and such, or as I put it at the time, as a kind of “spoken folk art”, and treat them as if they were used all the time and for all purposes. But that was how we had to treat them in order to produce teaching materials.

  17. Madras Lexicon says kOmaNam is colloq of kOvaNm which is from the Sanskrit kaupina

    Sorry, kOmaNam < kOvaNam < kaupina. So I would like to know where his Vedda derivation is coming from. He really ought to have mentioned it if he has some new academic source.

    If the people involved are not interested in saving their language

    The Veddas face discrimination, encroachment onto forest lands, cavalier disruption of their traditional ways of life. They are making their choices to “not save” (in so far they are making it) under very straightened circumstances. They might make quite different preferences if they were treated with decency.

  18. Hebrew and Welsh were dead languages at some point, and were revived.

    Welsh has never been dead; that is, there is an unbroken chain of children acquiring the language as an L1 going back to proto-Celtic. As the Welsh cleric said to Henry II of England back in the 12C:

    My Lord King, this nation may now be harassed, weakened and decimated by your soldiery, as it has so often been by others in former times; but it will never be totally destroyed by the wrath of man, unless at the same time it is punished by the wrath of God. Whatever else may come to pass, I do not think that on the Day of Direst Judgement any race other than the Welsh, or any other language, will give answer to the Supreme Judge of all for this small corner of the earth.

    It’s true that over the past two centuries the number of Welsh-speakers in Wales has declined greatly, but it has stabilized at about 19% for the last 35 years.

    When did Afrikaans become a language?

    Gradually during the 18C. The vocabulary is 95% of Dutch origin, but the differences in morphology, syntax, and spelling are substantial. The Essentialist Explanations characterizes Afrikaans as Dutch baby talk, and Dutch as Afrikaans spoken by a corpse.

    Or is Flemish the same as Dutch?

    Yes and no. That is, the standard language of Flanders is Standard Dutch, but (West-)Vlaams, the underlying Franconian language variety spoken by 1.35M people in Flanders, the southern Netherlands, and extreme northern France is sharply divergent from Standard Dutch. This is the same story as Swiss Standard German and Swiss German, and similarly in many parts of Europe.

  19. J. W. Brewer says:

    hat: who do you think the “we” is? Who does it seem likely that the author is getting these questions from? What I am skeptical of, as I thought I made clear, is the notion that outsiders, especially distant outsiders, can, if and when they decide to, easily control the outcome (one way or another) of complicated historical processes in cultural contexts that may be quite alien to their own experiences. Take fisheyed’s concrete example. The outside world did not do a particularly impressive job in bringing the decades of violent conflict between the two major ethnolinguistic groups in Sri Lanka to a conclusion — what is it realistic to expect could be done to reduce the numerous non-linguistic difficulties of the Veddas that may have the side effect of imperiling their language, other than the reintroduction of overt colonial rule?

  20. Well, probably nothing. And of course the “we” is pretty much who you suggest; it’s just that you sound as though you thought “we” should shut up and sit down. But no man is an island and all that, and I don’t see anything wrong with feeling bad about the loss of linguistic diversity even if one is not directly impacted.

  21. what is it realistic to expect could be done to reduce the numerous non-linguistic difficulties of the Veddas that may have the side effect of imperiling their language

    I’d tempted to mount a soapbox here but I will control myself and say that historically, European linguistic study of Tamil* played an important role in Tamils feeling authorized that Tamil was indeed just as good/old/literary as other languages. I think just giving academic attention to Vedda could have a positive affect.

    *There is actually a Tamil biographical film about the linguist missionary Robert Caldwell. I have yet to watch the whole thing but I was impressed by the production quality.

  22. “Languages are to a culture, what a living organism is to an ecosystem” — not sure about that if it implies that language and culture co-vary. Correct me if I’m wrong, but a comparison of Welsh and Irish seems to show that while Welsh as a language is in much better shape than Irish as a language, Welsh as a culture is much more worn down than Irish. (I guess I’m thinking mainly of music, which is the part of culture I pay most attention to next to language.)

  23. If the people involved are not interested in saving their language

    Not to pile on, but this also isn’t a binary thing. I am very interested in my kids learning English (otherwise who am I going to burden with all these books when I die?) but for various practical reasons I don’t speak nearly as much English around the home as I’d like. Obviously I am not an oppressed minority, but that’s exactly the point — if it’s hard even for me to get the work of intergenerational language transmission done, how much harder must it be for people without my (speaking globally, immense) privilege? As fisheyed says, you can’t extrapolate from how people deal with a tough situation to a complete picture of everything they value in life.

  24. It is not quite clear what actually is meant to be done when they are calling to preserve endangered languages.

    Giving more money to linguists?

    Always good idea, but what else is needed?

  25. Did you read the article? He talks about this.

  26. he talks about more field-work for linguists to document these languages and says that speakers must change their attitude.

    I am all for the former, but what can we do for the latter?

  27. It is not quite clear what actually is meant to be done when they are calling to preserve endangered languages.

    Well, Ken Milner gave one example (the Wisconsin Native American Languages Project)…

    And the revival of Cornish (perhaps that was the actually-dead-and-then-revived Celtic language Sashura was thinking of instead of Welsh?) seems to have depended in part on strong academic interest and accompanying record-making done while it was still alive. So if you want to keep open the possibility of reviving dead languages (which we know can be done), you need to record enough of it first.

  28. Unfortunately, we don’t know it can actually be done. Hebrew was used as a lingua franca between Jews of different groups, especially in Palestine, while it was dead; indeed, traditional Jewish males began to learn it as early as age 3, well within the window for language acquisition as opposed to learning. So it is in every sense a special case.

    My impression, for what it’s worth, is that the Welsh feel themselves to be not-English every bit as much as the Irish or the Scots. Cultures change, of course; even the Navajo who still speak Navajo have adopted many features from the Hispanic and Anglo cultures around them, from weaving and making turquoise jewelry to using cell phones and computers, but they remain The People, not just any old Americans. The same is true for some Native groups (by no means all) that have replaced their language with English altogether.

    From a film about a Scottish athlete who’s somewhat reluctant to go to the Olympics (or some other international competition). Two Englishmen are urging him to fulfill their dreams:

    “Come on, man, do it for England!”

    “Why would I want to do that?”

    “He means, for Britain.”

    “Oh. Why didn’t he say so?”

  29. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Really? I’m very disappointed in this (presumably fictitious) Englishman. I mean, speaking as an American, it strikes me as par for the course that my fellow Americans cannot distinguish between Britain and England. I mean, there are just so many states here to remember, and then we expect each other to have some vague sense of what Canada is, too, that we don’t have a lot of brain space left over to know about Redcoatland. But I can hardly wrap my brain around the idea of an echt Loegrian not understanding that “for England” won’t positively motivate a Scotsman. Did Braveheart and the “Scotch Mist” episode of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace teach us nothing?

  30. I believe the movie was set in the early 20C, but unfortunately all other details have escaped me. As for Canada, there are two kind of Yanks, those who know nothing about Canada and those who don’t care.

  31. …and those who know about Canada but pretend they don’t so they can make fun of it.

  32. Wiki gives kOmaNam as a loan-word into Vedda from either Sinhalese or Tamil. There are cognantes in numerous languages.

    Canada is a place whose sudden increase in significance I have not quite adjusted to.

  33. George Grady says:

    “Deaf communities like the one in Australia see the implantation of cochlear implants in children as invasive and unnecessary, and do not appreciate the implication that lives without hearing are pathological and must be fixed.”

    Is this for real? I don’t have the heart to Google it and completely destroy what is probably my hopeless naivete.

  34. When is a language considered as ‘endangered’? Is there a specific headcount number below which a language becomes endangered. Or does the geographical area across which a language is spoken decides it.

  35. Oh yes, and not just in Australia. I see their point: penile implants will “cure” impotence once and for all, but most men wouldn’t have one just because they have difficulties on occasion.

  36. what can we do for the latter?

    I was just reading the other day about a program in which people learning Arabic took tutorials with people in refugee camps (Palestinian?). It was such an interesting program because it gave the people in difficult circumstances not only a way to earn a little income, but to be in positions of dignity and authority.

    What about some sort of program in which speakers of endangered languages are teaching their languages, and people learning them as acts of solidarity as well as intellectual curiosity.

  37. Andy Butcher, a researcher of speech and hearing pathology, proposed in 2006 that the very high incidence of middle ear infections among Australian aboriginal children (something like 75%) could explain something about the sound inventories of Australian languages. Specifically, otitis media impairs hearing in the low frequencies and high frequencies but leaves the middle range relatively intact. He argues that as voicing contrast depends on low frequency cues, and fricatives produce mostly high-frequency sounds, both features are rare in Australian languages because children find them hard to perceive.

    Not an absurd idea, but needs more investigating.

  38. I doubt it. 50% of U.S. infants have at least one otitis media infection before their first birthday, yet English has six fricatives.

  39. Kabilan, there are many definitions, but the most essential one is that a language is endangered when it stops being transmitted to future generations, usually when children stop learning it. There are endangered languages with hundreds of thousands of speakers but few children, and stable, healthy languages with only hundreds of speakers.

  40. English has six fricatives

    Even better than that:

    /f, v, θ, ð, s, z, ʃ, ʒ/ and arguably /h/. Eight or nine fricative phonemes (not to mention the fricative allophones of /r, j, w/).

  41. J. W. Brewer says:

    There is perhaps a distinction to be drawn between endangered languages where there is still a largeish population with some sense of group identity (call it ethnic or national or tribal or what have you) but which has largely switched away from the ancestral language, and situations where the group is itself so small as to likely be unsustainable. Breton might be an example of the first — it could be under slightly different circumstances as healthy as Basque or Welsh and some sort of revival, given propitious political/cultural dynamics, is not inconceivable, with (from the instances in the linked article) Kusunda an instance of the second. The Kusunda language is presumably disappearing as a side-effect of the disappearance (which is not the same thing as “death”) of a distinctive Kusunda people, because (just taking wikipedia at face value) the hundred or so living Kusunda no longer make up a cohesive hunter-gatherer band living out in the forest but have moved into villages and overwhelmingly married non-Kusunda. It is probably difficult-to-impossible for a population totaling in the low three figures to be self-sustaining as a coherent group unless it is an isolated hunter-gatherer band living at a stone-age level of technology. Put in slightly different terms, the minimum necessary size for a sustainable speech community with its own language variety varies over time and space and technological/economic context. If that minimum necessary size increases, the total number of extant languages is almost certainly going to decrease — although of course as languages get bigger they then subdivide anew into dialects etc.

    It would be interesting to have a companion list of languages which are small in absolute numbers but not massively endangered. Maybe Yup’ik in Alaska (total speakers in five figures, probably still spoken to some extent by a majority of self-identified members of the relevant ethnic group, still learned as L1 by a significant, if perhaps not majority, percentage of kids, much of population sufficiently geographically isolated/clustered that there’s a fair amount of “natural” endogamy) might qualify? Case studies like that (if that’s a good example) would enable some insight into endangered-language situations in terms of a triage-like assessment of how salvageable particular ones might be.

  42. Yes, that’s an excellent idea.

  43. As a rule of thumb, every minority language in the world is either endangered, or will be in a generation or two, and some majority ones as well. I’m being dramatically pessimistic, but I don’t think I’m so far off the mark.

  44. JC, maybe so. I don’t know if it lasts longer in Australian kids, and what other arguments there are. I think the argument is stronger for voicing distinction and sub-500 Hz deafness than it is for fricatives and over 4,000 Hz deafness, which are the numbers I read for this argument. There’s plenty of fricative noise below 4 kHz.

  45. From the U of Alaska site: “Of a total population of about 21,000 people, about 10,000 are speakers of the language. Children still grow up speaking Yup’ik as their first language in 17 of 68 Yup’ik villages, those mainly located on the lower Kuskokwim River, on Nelson Island, and along the coast between the Kuskokwim River and Nelson Island.” That’s what I would call ‘vulnerable’. 30 years ago Navajo, Cherokee and some of the Cree languages were at a comparable state, and all are unquestionably endangered now.

  46. J. W. Brewer says:

    Of course, sometimes whether a particular language is a “majority” or “minority” one depends on the frame of reference — Yup’ik may be a majority language in the context of a given village but not in the context of a larger region. But languages that are not the majority L1 of even a given village-or-equivalent (consider among the non-“indigenous” U.S. population how the Hasidim and Amish cluster geographically in ways that have helped them keep their kids from becoming monolingual Anglophones) are probably worse off.

    Also note that it can be fortuitous whether a given smallish community in a given location is or isn’t the only one in the world that speaks the language in question. The disappearance via assimilation and exogamy of the colonial Huguenot population of the Hudson Valley as a distinct ethnic group seems like no great loss from a language diversity standpoint because the world as a whole remained quite well-stocked with Francophones, but the social dynamics that led their descendants to switch over to Dutch and/or English would have been equally powerful (and perhaps more so) if there had been no other speakers of Huguenottish anywhere else in the world.

  47. I don’t reckon /h/ a proper fricative (more like a voiceless vowel — which vowel it is depends on the adjacent vowels). But yes, eight. I brain-farted away the shibilants.

  48. marie-lucie says:

    Y: there are many definitions, but the most essential one is that a language is endangered when it stops being transmitted to future generations, usually when children stop learning it.

    This common definition appears to place the blame on children. Children are not responsible for the language spoken around them and hopefully to them. The adults (parents, grandparents, older siblings, etc) make that choice. Even in families where parents speak one language (usually the traditional, endangered one) to their own parents and another (usually the socially dominant one) to their children, the children might acquire a passive (understanding) knowledge of the traditional language but be unable to speak it, if the older generation does not speak it to the children and expect to be answered in it.

  49. Well, my mother’s parents, Norwegian-Americans in a small Iowa town consisting largely of Norwegian-Americans, wanted their kids to learn Norwegian and even offered them money for every word they learned, but the kids stubbornly refused, so it’s not entirely about the older generation.

  50. I’d like to offer the following for consideration on the topic: it was written nearly twenty years ago and brings up several issues which are touched upon in some of the comments (Ken Miner’s Goddard quote, J.W. Brewer’s question about “we”)…

    https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/11559/SLS1998v28.2-05Newman.pdf?sequence=2

    Disclaimer: I am otherwise unacquainted with the author.

  51. That’s this Paul Newman, the world authority (it says here) on Hausa and the Chadic languages.

  52. marie-lucie says:

    LH: my mother’s parents, Norwegian-Americans … , wanted their kids to learn Norwegian and even offered them money for every word they learned, but the kids stubbornly refused,

    This is not surprising. The parents probably wanted their children to learn English and therefore spoke to their children in English, which became the children’s mother tongue, and when later they decided that the children should learn Norwegian (which the kids probably associated with older, “old-fashioned” people), they tried to teach them one word at a time, a useless method if the desired result is fluency.

    This situation is relatively common for children of bilinguals who are raised in the dominant language (which the parents found difficult to learn), and expected either to already know the parents’ language because after all it is “easy to speak” and they might already have some passive knowledge of it from hearing adults, or to learn it in little bits, word by word, rather than from hearing it used naturally in appropriate situations. Either way the result is frustration and resentment for both parents and children.

  53. In short. Realistically, we can do nothing to change negative attitudes of native speakers of endangered languages to their language.

    So let’s document what we can and preserve as much as possible to help revive them in the future, when their descendants start to show interest in language of their ancestors.

  54. This situation is relatively common for children of bilinguals who are raised in the dominant language

    Is there any guide to best-practices for successfully raising bilingual children in this situation?

  55. Realistically, we can do nothing to change negative attitudes of native speakers of endangered languages to their language.
    Not at all; there are many communities all over the world who are having some success turning the tide. But it is hard, and the science of language maintenance is very much in its infancy.

  56. @J. W. Brewer: I don’t think it’s fair to pin the hubris on the people asking “Why don’t we just let all the languages die out?”, because they are presumably replying to a statement of the opposite stripe (e.g., something like “I’m a linguist working in the preservation of endangered languages”). The premise that “we” can have, or not have, an impact — or at least that “we” can try, or not try — is supplied by the putative expert. The people replying to it may be forgiven for failing to challenge it.

  57. Is there any guide to best-practices for successfully raising bilingual children in this situation?
    A good overview is here, especially the final section “Implications for parents” (but the entire article is worth reading).

  58. J. W. Brewer says:

    I largely agree with Ran’s point – it is typically those who argue that language extinction is a Bad Thing and a crisis who at least imply the minor premise that it is something “we” could in fact prevent if only “we” set our minds to it. I don’t think I’d intended to argue the opposite, but I can see that the phrasing of my post did not make that clear. And I certainly don’t think there’s nothing that can be done by anyone, including well-meaning outsiders, in any circumstances, just that there’s not always something that can be done (and/or not something that can be done without radically changing the political/social/economic circumstances of the language’s remaining speakers, which is likely to itself be a very challenging if not intractable problem outside the skill set of language-diversity enthusiasts) in any given circumstance — one issue may be that more attention may be given to the heartstring-tugging stories of really really endangered languages (e.g. only 14 speakers left, only 3 of whom are under age 75 . . .) which are already plausibly past a point of no return, whereas what Y called the “vulnerable” stage maybe two generations prior to that may be where more could be effectively done to stabilize things if that was where attention and resources were focused. Triage, in other words.

  59. J. W. Brewer says:

    Thanks to Etienne for the link to the Newman piece which I had not previously seen. I am skeptical that any of the structural problems in the linguistic-industrial complex that he identifies have changed for the better in the intervening 17 years, although I would be pleased to be informed that I was wrong about that. I think he may slightly overstate or misconstrue some of the problems (in particular, I think it’s important for scientists doing field research in non-Western countries with crappy governments with crappy human rights records not to be naive about the risks associated with criticizing the government’s policies, and the ways in which moralistic spouting off may be not only ineffectual but counterproductive, but it doesn’t follow that being a “scientist” requires the abandonment of moral judgment about how certain human beings treat other human beings), but in general it’s a valuable perspective.

  60. And I certainly don’t think there’s nothing that can be done by anyone, including well-meaning outsiders, in any circumstances,

    In the case of the Veddas, 1) there are already some terrific initiatives to address the political situation (e.g. Ryan Goodman’s work to charge Gota with war crimes in the US) which ordinary people can throw their support toward, 2) Sri Lanka is a country with depends heavily on tourism and therefore there is more possiblity for effecting change through publicity, 3) technology also offers opportunities (e.g. in the Arabic tutoring initiative I mentioned).

    In the 90s, I saw lots of African-Americans starting to learn African languages and Arabic, and later, I have seen a lot of progressive white people getting interested in Arabic for political reasons, and while few of them probably become fluent/literate, it’s been a good thing overall. I would like to people to think of learning lesser taught languages, endangered languages in political terms.

  61. especially the final section “Implications for parents” (but the entire article is worth reading).

    Thanks, I was hoping for something a bit more detailed. I have a bilingual friend with a monolingual husband who would like their child to be bilingual. Perhaps I will recommend taking a second husband! 🙂

  62. David Marjanović says:

    the regular-Dutch one rather strikingly has more articles than the regular-French one — even though you’d think virtually every Dutch wikipedia contributor could probably read English perfectly well

    Well, that makes it easier to translate English Wikipedia articles…

  63. I have a bilingual friend with a monolingual husband who would like their child to be bilingual. Perhaps I will recommend taking a second husband!
    No need for radical measures like that! 😉 As it said, the general rule is “one parent, one language”. So the monolingual husband should speak the language common to both (assuming they share a language) and the bilingual wife should speak her other language. But to succesfully raise a bilingual child, it’s better if there is some active exposure to monolinguals of the language that is not the general means of communication in their community.

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