14 February 2008

The future of languages

(Photo of David Crystal by Daniel Mordzinski at the Cartagena Hay Festival 2008 blog.)

After the Hay Festival Anne Enright event on Saturday (26 January), we were fortunate enough to attend a lecture by prolific author and linguist David Crystal on “The Future of Languages.” It was a fascinating talk, especially for those relatively new to the issue. I'm very interested in reading some of his work (particularly The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left). Here are the notes I could decipher from my Moleskine pages (any and all factual errors are mine).

He began his talk by saying that this last decade has been the most exciting time in history since 10,000 years ago when writing began. Developments include the supreme significance of the Internet, the recognition of English as a global language (the first books began appearing on the subject ca. 1997-1998), and the discovery of endangered languages.

There are between 6,000 and 7,000 languages in the world. Half will die in the 21st century. One language dies every two weeks. He quietly added, “One died last Saturday.” The last woman to speak Eyak, Marie Smith Jones, had died in Alaska the week before.

Most languages exist along the equator, but they are dying out all over the world. Of these, 60 languages have only one speaker left. He asked us to "imagine being the last speaker of a language.” What would that be like? He described the huge responsibility they feel and the immense pressure weighing on their shoulders. They want it documented before they die and are desperate to give as much information as possible, because there is always the hope that another generation will want it back.

Languages can be brought back from the dead if they are written or recorded. It happened with Hebrew, as well as an aboriginal language in Australia in the 1890’s. This last one had been recorded, and now children are learning it today.

It is crucial for languages to be written down. One third of languages in the world have never been written down (about 2,000). And if a language completely disappears, it’s as if it never existed. A culture leaves evidence behind, but when a language dies, it leaves nothing.

Why should we care? Some think it’s all for the best and want only one world language. But monolingualism does not guarantee peace (as exhibited by Vietnam, Rwanda, and Cambodia). On the contrary—multilingual countries (such as Canada, India, and Belgium) tend to be more peaceful.

Why should we care? Because language expresses identity. We not only use it to communicate, but to express individual identity. (The former deals with the head, but the latter, the heart.)

He mentioned how more people care about the issue these days. 21 February is International Mother Language Day. 26 September is the European Day of Languages. The U.N. has declared 2008 to be the Year of World Languages.

Multilingualism is a basic human good. More people are multilingual than monolingual in the world. Countries with colonial histories tend to be monolingual and try to control the language use of the rest. Multilingualism is an index of diversity (also a basic human good), as well as a demonstration of intellectual adaptability.

Every language has its own vision of the world (e.g., such as with untranslatable words). Only 6,000 visions of the world exist…and half are dying out.

Rescuing these languages is not an economic imperative but a cultural one (an expression of what it means to be human). Can a dying language be saved? In some cases, yes. What is needed is:
  • A bottom-up attitude. The people themselves must want to save it.
  • Top-down support. All aspects of government must want it, from local to national (this includes UNESCO initiatives).
  • Money.
To promote multilingualism, there must be the financial means in order to have everything written and recorded. Training teachers, publishing books, etc.

It could actually be done with $200,000 a year for five years. That means a total of $600 million for all of the languages that are endangered. What is $600 million? Less than 1 day's profit for OPEC. It's also the amount Bill Gates makes in half a day.

The difficulty is in getting the public’s attention. This is why the Internet is so magical. Obviously, the people would need a terminal and electricity in order to have access, but it’s possible. Nowadays it’s easy to give an endangered language a public presence.

In the 1970’s they began reviving Welsh; the Internet guaranteed its future. But the future of a language is only as secure as the interest of its teenagers. Being online has helped to encourage this. For example, the Navajo now talk online in their own language.

The Internet is now multilingual. In 1995, 90% of it was in English. In 2000, 75% was in English. By 2003, there were more hosts in languages other than English. This is just the beginning. Most of China and Africa are not online (only about 5% of the population of each country). Only 12-15% of South America is online. The balance of languages online will soon reflect the balance of languages in the real world.

The future of language is the future of society. The dominant language is the dominant culture. In the future, it could be Chinese or Arabic or Spanish (which is presently the world’s fastest-growing language). But one must be careful in this line of thinking: there is no close link between the arrival of a global language (such as English) and the death of others. In the United States and Australia, yes this is the case. But English hasn’t taken over Latin America. Political suppression does exist, though (the Chinese have suppressed speakers of other language; in Africa, Arabic and Swahili have had an aggressively dominant role).

Languages have always died. Why is this happening at such a faster rate now?
  • Natural disasters kill and fragment the population, causing displacement (a language really dies when the second-to-last person dies and there is no one left to talk to).
  • Political reasons (genocide or strategy)
  • Globalization (no isolated place)
We will be better able to understand this phenomena once there is a better understanding of the impact of the Internet.

In the Q&A, the first question dealt with entities that officiate the “standards” of a language (such as the Real Academia Española) and whether these organizations have positive or negative effects on a language. Professor Crystal responded that 30 of these exist worldwide and were mainly founded for political reasons (entities where language and politics are intertwined). Control is a form of power and can be expressed in the restriction of a language, creating an “elite” vs. “common” dichotomy. He cautioned that an academy that doesn’t understand the real developments of a language will eventually lose touch with what is actually happening to that language. He said that if Britain had had a royal academy of language, everyone else would be “wrong” and differences would be stifled—yet it’s the diversity of English that has strengthened it. Spanish is diversifying rapidly (just as English did). All varieties of a language must be respected. Language changes whether an academy exists or not.

The next question was the (inevitable) question as to whether or not the Internet is “degrading” language. He responded that there is no anarchy on the Internet—people have to be able to write well enough in order to make themselves understood. Rather, people are exploiting and exploring changes to language. The Internet allows us to be informal and it’s the novelty of it that has helped create those alterations (such as with texting and instant messaging). He said that it’s not a disaster, but an exploration of possibilities; it’s not erasing language, but adding variety and increasing expressive richness. But, of course, it must be managed. Children must be taught the various styles of writing and learn not to mix them up. This is why we have teachers.

Another question dealt with the fear that if English is introduced into a culture, it would cause a deterioration of that culture’s language. Professor Crystal frankly stated that he doesn’t see this happening. The use of English as a functional language doesn’t affect a culture. One’s ideology or culture does not change; one’s identity does not change simply because a second language is learned. It’s a theoretical rather than a practical argument.

Someone else asked about how the meaning of untranslatable words can be recorded if their meaning is untranslatable. He said that recordings are made and many discussions take place between the native speakers and the linguists in an attempt to capture a word’s meaning. Sometimes the native speaker will try to explain it to the linguists in the latters' own tongue.

The last question asked if artificial languages, such as Esperanto, are useful. He replied, “Yes, of course! Languages only exist if they’re useful.” He explained that although the reasons for it have changed (the politics of it, etc.), it still has its role.

I discovered Professor Crystal's own blog while I was looking up the links to this post. I was delighed to read what he wrote about his exprience in Colombia:
Before we went, our friends and colleagues expressed the hope that we would not be kidnapped. That is the bad image which Colombia still has, even though it's largely based on events that took place years ago. Problems there still are, of course, down in the south, and there are still some no-go areas in the cities. But these are city problems, not Colombia problems, applicable as much to London and Liverpool as to anywhere else. Be sensible, follow local advice, and you'll be fine - as indeed we were.

More than fine. We had a great time, Hilary and I. Colombia is a truly beautiful country. Bogotá, at 10,000 feet, nestles at the foot of a swathe of hills covered with luxuriant vegetation. From the top of one of these, you can see the whole city below you - a rare sight, in my experience. This was Monserrate, a pilgrimage church which we reached by a funicular railway. Thousands of people make a visit, especially on a Sunday, and - as pretty distinctive-looking tourists - we were noticed and warmly welcomed. I received a new identity there too (see below). Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast, is a walled city - the largest former military emplacement in the Americas, the guidebooks say. It's a splendid location for a Hay-type festival, with several fine large old buildings acting as venues for talks and gatherings. Enthusiastic audiences, as always at Hay. And the massive walls give the place an intimacy not too far removed from that which you get at the festival site in Wales. It's slightly warmer than the average Welsh day, though, it has to be said - around 30 degrees, more or less.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this very informative article. I vote for teaching foreign languages at school from 1st grade, and to give teachers a proper traing to do so. I know from experience: the more languages you speak, the easier it is to learn a new one.

amcorrea said...

No argument here! Crystal's comment regarding "intellectual adaptability" is something the public does not hear enough about in monolinguistic countries (such as the U.S.).

Anonymous said...

"Intellectual adaptability" is one of those nebulous terms educators like to throw around. Is it perhaps a synonym for "open mindedness"? If so, then I understand what he is talking about. If not, then I don't.

amcorrea said...

Perhaps. I took it to mean the mind's versatility in dealing with new, opposite, or disparate concepts (an example would be alternate use of the "left" and "right" brain).

Anna Clark said...

Thanks for this post: fascinating

Anonymous said...

re. alternate and disparate concepts.

Learning a second language does two things for us. It allows us to communicate with people in that language and it gives us the pleasure of reading expressions in that language which are unique because they are not wholly translatable. Psychologists may have done studies of the effects of bilingualness on the brain. It would be interesting to know. I am inclined to disbelieve that bilingualism has an effect on the plasticity of thought and understanding.

amcorrea said...

Here are some of the results I got when I googled "bilingualism on the brain":

The Washington Post, "Bilingualism's Brain Benefits"

The BBC, "Being bilingual 'protects brain'"

News Wales, "Bilingualism boosts the brain"

A neuropsychologist's blog, "Bilingualism and the Brain"

I would love to read more on this.

Anonymous said...

I recently decided to broaden my horizons and decided to learn a new language; the question is what should I learn? I’ve asked a few friends and they were useless! Everyone was telling me something different, in the end I have decided to attempt to learn Japanese. I work in business and the power Japan and China has keeps growing and growing, so learning a bit of the language could be a massive help in my future career. Does anybody know of any reasonably priced but high-quality language learning software?

Piotr Ulbaldini said...

What a fascinating article! I was brought up in Wales which is a bilingual country and so I've always spoken Welsh and English. I do think though that bilingualism only increases brain capacity if the second/third languages are learnt systematically and consciously - that's the only way to increase language learning ability; having been brought up speaking a language means nothing.

I'm all for language preservation but unless it is spoken naturally in communities, then it will never be native but merely a second language with speakers being more comfortable in their native language.

Most Popular Books said...

I beg to differ. Advanced societies should benefit from one language alone, because the benefits far exceed any difficulties.

Mondy said...

Im currently learning german at the moment, and think knowing more than one language is a tremendous boon to understanding and solving problems.

On the other hand you have to make the distinction between bilingualism being useful and preserving each and every language.

The truth is modern stable nation states require a strong codified language spoken by a workable portion of the population. This is why France, England, Germany, Russia, China, Spain, The Moors, etc etc (by politicians of every possible ideological positon) have all historically moved to marginalise regional languages.

Imagine if history was changed and the was no standardised German or Italian but just a sweep of dialects spreading thousands of miles. Or Cornish still existed. Or Arabic never replaced N.African/ME languages.

I dont hold Indonesia or Tanazania as the ideal modern country, countries hamstrung in every aspect by hundreds of different languages.

p.S It should be pointed out the multilingual (peaceful) Belgium is actually incapable of putting together a government currently.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Hebrew: it depends on your definition of a dead language. For hundreds of years Hebrew was not a mother tongue but it was very much alive in education, scholarship, prayer, and communication between Jewish communities. Ben Yehuda's revival of the Hebrew language has assumed mythical proportions. He did play a central role in turning Hebrew back into a mother tongues, but not from scratch as popularly reported.