Marja-Leena Rathje
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dying languages


Image credit: Enduring Voices Project

Finnish was my first language. I was five years old when my family emigrated to Canada. Arriving in Winnipeg, I was promptly placed in school, not knowing a word of English. Now that was language immersion! I don't remember much of those early scary days. I was already reading Finnish and we continued to speak Finnish at home. I learned English quickly enough as children do, but my parents' English was never perfect. LIke many working class immigrants, they were too busy working hard to survive to take more than a couple of basic language classes. Some immigrant parents, wishing to learn English through their children, did not allow their native languages to be spoken so some of my friends lost most of their mother tongue. I'm sure this was typical of many immigrant experiences in North America and other parts. These days, I'm sad that my Finnish is not a strong as English from lack of everyday practice since my parents are no longer with us.

Perhaps because of that, I've developed strong feelings about language being part of a person's identity and connection with his or her roots and culture. So whenever I read about how many languages are dying around the world, I feel sorrow at the world's loss of so many cultures.

Yesterday's Vancouver Sun has one such story, B.C.'s native languages rapidly dying: linguists

Indigenous languages are dying off at an alarming rate in British Columbia, prompting linguists to include the province on a list of the five worst global "hot spots" for language extinction. Most fluent aboriginal speakers are aged 60 or older, and their languages will be lost forever when the last speaker dies, said David Harrison, co-director of the Enduring Voices project, which seeks to document and revitalize languages slipping towards oblivion.
Much of the blame for language loss can be tied to residential schools, UBC linguistics Prof. Suzanne Gessner said. For decades, children were taken away from their families during the school year and educated in English. A compensation package designed to address the wrongs of residential schools did nothing to revitalize languages, she said -- and last November, the federal government cut $160 million in funding for aboriginal languages.

Further links:
Enduring Voices Project

Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages

Why preserve languages? - my post of spring 2004

Marja-Leena | 20/09/2007 | 6 comments
themes: Culture, Ethnicity, History, Linguistics


Having lived in a foreign country, where I was immersed in a new language and missing the "mother tongue," I find this very poignant. Languages have so much to do with how we think and feel. When one learns a second (or third or...) one realizes how differently each language causes one to think about things... and therefore even to perceive things. It's a richness lost.

Languages circumscribe your worldview, and for that reason, we need not only to preserve languages, but gain as many multi-lingual people as possible.

We also need to find ways to express things that were never in the language in the first place. Think of English or German before the age of aviation, and how words had to be created when this technology appeared.

I am encouraged by the example of Hebrew, which was an agricultural society language that developped state-of-the-art technological vocabulary without losing its integrity. When a transistor manufacturer in the 1960s built a factory on the Navajo Reservation, the workers had to be taught how to build the units. Firstly, new vocabulary had to be created. For transistor, the Navajo developed the term "blue earth". And many more terms.

It's a fascinating subject, and language loss is, I agree, potentially devastating.

MB and Peter - thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree that knowing more than one language is enriching, the more the better. I have occasionally come across people who think all we need in this world is English, and they are usually only-English speakers who have insulated themselves from other cultures. Sure it may be good to have one common language for business, but not at the expense of destroying other languages.

I like the way the Navajo found their own culturally sensitive terms for new technology! I find it disturbing how many English words creep into Finnish, for example. Minority languages always suffer from the external pressure of the majority, and the people themselves don't always realize what is happening when, in their eagerness to learn English, they forget their native languages. Another sad story concerns the many small Finno-Ugric groups scattered around Russia which have no support by the state to allow local schools to teach in their native tongue. In fact, some have even been punished if they do so.

This loss of language and culture amongst the smaller indigenous gorups around the world is, to me, akin to the loss of wildlife species.

The late Dr. Wilder Penfield once suggested that for a minority language to survive, at least room in the house must be unilingual minority language. He suggested the kitchen and/or dining room. Everyone has to eat, and if you want something, you've got to ask for it in the minority language. I wonder how well that works...?

When I was over in Finistere, I was talking to an older chap who was a native Breton speaker; he said no one much spoke it thereabouts who was under 60. I asked about the Diwan - Breton medium schools, he said they were there but struggling for pupils. There are posters etc encouraging people to learn to speak it and in general much pride in it, and it is no longer persecuted and discouraged, but it's fading even so. It seems to me that perhaps 50 years of globalisation and a global media have done what centuries of oppression and persecution couldn't; the 60+year olds who speak it were probably placarded and hit for doing so at school, but continued. To continue your analogy about endangered species, it is not so much hunting that kills as the loss of habitat (which doesn't necessarily mean hunting isn't cruel and barbaric...);in the same way, it isn't so much the repression and denigration of a minority language or the attack on individuals who speak it,cruel and unkind though that is or was, as the erosion of a cultural milieu in which it can thrive. The homes and farms and fishing villages remained relatively untouched by the outside world, and so the language survived.
I pointed out that Welsh has undergone a revival, which is through an emergent political system that favours Welsh speakers economically in the job market, even and especially in areas where the language was formerly not spoken, and through a middle class who favour the Welsh medium schools for the quality of the education and the advantages it confers, and who understand the value of bilingualism in general. But it seems that bilingualism is often only valued if the language concerned has a marketable value, not for it's own sake. As well as the matter of personal and cultural expression, there is, I think, evidence that bilingualism improves and enhances all kinds of aspects of the brain's functioning...
I was gong to do a post about this but now I've put it here instead!

Peter, that makes sense, and it should work if eveyone is committed. I must confess though, that with our children, we didn't stick firmly with teaching Finnish or my husband's first language. It was hard when he and I could not speak each other's native tongue. I know some families do succeed.

Lucy, thank you for your long and thoughtful comment! I think you are right about globalization and media eroding language and culture. The Welsh success story is one that I wish more could emulate. It seems to me that there are so many different stories about language loss. I'd love to see you still doing a post on this.