General Linguistics > Linguist's Lounge

Is preserving languages a good thing?

(1/2) > >>

So, what do you guys here think, is preserving languages a good thing? In other words, is it a good thing that there are so many different languages in the world today?
I've studied quite a bit of linguistics, and linguistics doesn't really seem to give us an answer to that question. And more I think about it, more it seems to me that it's not a good thing. The losses that different languages cause are obvious: a lot of resources and time is spent on translation, a lot of resources and time is spent on language learning, language barriers undoubtedly make it easier to implement censorship... And the benefits of keeping the languages are questionable.
Sure, for scientific reasons, it's a good thing to document languages before they disappear. But that's it, document the languages that are already there. Keeping the languages alive won't reveal us secrets of historical linguistics. Languages that could give us information to solve the mysteries of historical linguistics, such as, when it comes to Croatian toponyms, Illyrian or Pelasgian, those languages have been dead for millennia. Wasting resources to preserve modern languages won't bring them back.
In some ideal world in which there was some language, such as Esperanto, which everybody knew, preserving languages wouldn't be so wasteful, and maybe not even so pointless. But that's not what's going on. In some parts of Africa, people are forced to learn more than three languages just to be able to communicate on a job.
Do I really gain something by some relatively small language, such as Croatian, being my native language, instead of some big language such as English, Spanish, Chinese or Russian? I don't see it. As far as I can see, there is nothing useful available in Croatian that's not available in English. Sometimes, on the Internet, there is useful stuff (when it comes to programming, for example) available in Chinese or Russian but not in English, but I don't see that there is anything useful available in Croatian but not in English.
Even when it comes to Croatian history and current events, am I really more qualified to talk about those things just because I speak Croatian? Or does it, in fact, lead me astray? I thought I was more qualified to talk about Croatian history because I could search for ironic meanings in names and assert that an event is mythological, and people who don't speak Croatian can hardly search for ironic meanings in names. In this case, knowledge of Croatian has led me astray. And who knows about my alternative interpretation of the Croatian toponyms, has studying Croatian toponyms led me closer to the truth, or if I would be closer to the truth if I simply trusted the mainstream linguistics (most of which is available in English).

The death of any language has to be lamented. Language is one of the ways in which humans express themselves and each language is unique. The death of a language is the death of a unique mode of human expression.

To employ a medical term I am not sure that a lot can be achieved by putting endangered languages on a life support machine. The really important thing though is not to impose solutions from outside but to find out what the speakers want. The loss of a language may be accompanied by other changes such as moving from a remote village to a large city, eating different food, wearing different clothes and abandoning local customs. Young people in particular will want to fit in. They may equate the language of their grandparents with the sort of life their parents wanted to change for what they perceived to be a better one. No one with a liberal disposition will tell someone what they should wear or eat, but can be over keen on encouraging them to keep in touch with their "culture" within which they include language. It is all too easy for culture to become an instrument of oppression.

It is interesting to note that liberal opinion has in fact shifted 180 degrees over the last few hundred years. When most of South America was part of the Spanish Empire the authorities, and in particular the Church, took the view that the indigenous peoples should stick to their own languages to discourage them from getting too organised on a large scale. In fact, significant resources were put into studying the indigenous languages. With the coming of independence the view was that if you could not speak Spanish you were disenfranchised. Accordingly Spanish was encouraged. The idea was no doubt picked up from the French Revolution. The effects of the French Revolution in France with respect to encouraging French are still evident today. Withing living memory children who spoke local languages were actively discouraged from using them in school. Encouraging a national langauge does not have to involve discouraging a local language, but in practice that is what often happens.

There are many reasons for languages being lost, but it is not really helpful to dwell on them. The fact that a language has been actively suppressed or heavily discouraged is not really a good reason on its own to revive or preserve it. The sole criterion must be whether the speakers of the language (and not those who purport to represent them) want to keep it. Governments should be no more than facilitators if a community wants to preserve its language. Whilst a balance needs to be kept between national and local languages, no authority should be encouraging one at the expense of the other. If we are to live in a world where diversity is celebrated language must be included. However, whilst language may for some be an important part of who they are, no language should become a badge of identity.

I cannot see languages like Croatian disappearing anytime soon nor do I see any need for them to do so.

> So, what do you guys here think, is preserving languages a good thing? In other words,
> is it a good thing that there are so many different languages in the world today?
Personally I think there are at least these reasons for languages to be preserved:
1. Nationalism. Some of you might probably want to change it to the “healthy nationalism” – as you will.
2. Conspiracy. There may be a lot of reasons for a group of people to be able to communicate in secret. Nationalities are the groups so they do not need to invent a code for this purpose – they already have their languages.
3. Authentication purposes. It is connected to the two above but I have decided to single it out. There are situations when one need to prove the belonging to a group. That is a thieves' Latin may be used for. Nationalities do not need to invent a jive they have their languages already.

If you ask: "Is it a good thing that there are so many different languages in the world today?" you are really asking if we should all be speaking the same language. That is a question not that different from any of the following questions:

Should we all eat the same food?
Should we all follow the same religion?
Should we all wear the same clothes?
Should we all like the same music?

In different places at different times a given language may be hooked to any one or more of the following: race; ethnicity; nationality; religion; custom. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that until you start insisting that you cannot be an x unless you speak y. Once you do that you are on the road to oppression. Equally wrong is insisting that if y is your native tongue you must be an x. The end of that road is Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer.

Linguists have an automatic response that preserving languages is always a good thing. I can't think of any language that is so evil that it deserves to die. The "good" is not actually preserving languages, it is have a more diverse set of languages, so it is also a good thing to create all sorts of crazy new languages. The goodness of many languages is that is increases our empirical base, because we make claims about what is possible vs. impossible in human language, but we're a little low on test languages.

It's a good thing if a person can speak three or four languages (or more). It's a bad think if you force a person to only speak their tribal language and force them to live the hunter-gatherer lifestyle rather than work as a computer programmer. The part that is next to impossible for most people to understand is that it is possible to speak the tribal language and go to college and work in the city in a fancy tech job. The reality is that minor local languages (the "mother tongue") will not play a role in most people's lives, unless they are still living the traditional lifestyle in the traditional location, where your spouse does likewise and is at most from the neighboring village. It is possible, but unlikely, that a speaker of Taa will go to engineering college, get a job in London, meet a speaker of Inuit who got a law degree, and they raise their children trilingually in Taa, Inuit and English. I would not count on it.

The real question is, what is the cost? Learning a language generally has no cost, you just do it because people around you speak the language and you learn it. There is a real cost problem when people around you do not speak that language, and artificial methods have to be used to cause some language learning. The usual theory is that it is the government's job to provide people with the stuff that they need but can't afford, so the government needs to come up with a way to cause people to learn certain languages. Thus huge sums could be poured into language maintenance programs, so that second and third generation Somalis in the US can learn their heritage language, in case they are not learning it at home (AFAIK, there is zero effort in the US at Somali language maintenance: we generally either respond in a limited way to fluent immigrants who don;t speak English, or wait until the language is down to 5 speakers and somebody gets a grant). 99.99% of the time, there is an un-met prerequisite, namely having materials and teachers. And then, 99.99% of the time, policy-makers are clueless about reality, for example they think that all people from Somalia speak this uniform language "Somali", but actually "Somali" is a language family and the individual languages are not interchangeable; plus quite a number of Somalis are speakers of one of the Bantu languages, not at all related to Somali. In general, policy makers think that they speak "Italian" in Italy – no, they speak Logudorese, Friulian, Venetian, Sicilian, etc. (plus non-Romance languages).

What would be good would be finding a way to convincingly demonstrate that speaking the local language does not doom you to primitive hunter-gatherer status forever. "Preserving" i.e. pickling languages is generally a waste of time and resources, unless it is done in an intelligent fashion (a linguist spends 20 years with the last speakers and develops a good set of linguistic resources).


[0] Message Index

[#] Next page

Go to full version