It’s no secret that the world’s roughly 7,000 languages are dying off at alarming rates. A language dies approximately every 14 days, and if we keep it up for much longer, roughly half of the languages in existence today will be extinct by the end of this century. This process isn’t happening on equitable terms, either. The languages most likely to be imperiled are often indigenous and minority tongues spoken in the regions of the world most affected by climate change.
Then again, as evidenced by the existence of organizations like the Endangered Language Alliance and Wikitongues, language extinction is not a one-way street. Languages do, and have, come back from dormancy — a term that’s technically more correct than “death.” There are also active efforts around the world to document, digitize and sustain endangered languages by empowering the communities that are keeping them alive.
In this episode, senior content producer Steph Koyfman speaks with Daniel Bögre Udell, the director and co-founder of Wikitongues, about why we ought to be optimistic about language revival. Then, producers Thomas Moore Devlin, Dylan Lyons and David Doochin join in for a roundtable discussion.
Multilinguish: Dead And Endangered Languages
First, Steph interviews Daniel about his experiences in the field of language reclamation. We learn why it’s never truly the case that languages die for good, why access to one’s mother tongue is an important part of maintaining the mental health of a given community, and what the average person can do to help keep linguistic diversity alive.
Next, Steph, Thomas, Dylan and David get together to tackle two truths and a lie involving endangered languages. Then, we approach the ultimate question, but from a few different angles: why does it matter if languages die? Plus, we go on a tangent about online dating.
This episode was produced by Steph Koyfman and edited by Ruben Vilas. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. Special thanks to Daniel Bögre Udell for taking the time to talk to us for this episode.
The International Year Of Indigenous Languages | United Nations
Is Climate Change Accelerating Language Loss? | Babbel Magazine
From Survival To Revival: A Q&A With The Endangered Language Alliance | Babbel Magazine
WWF Study On The Link Between Species And Language Loss | World Wildlife Fund
What Causes A Language To Die? | Babbel Magazine
Steph Koyfman: From the language app, Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m senior producer Steph Koyfman. The United Nations has designated 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. This formal nod from a major institution like the UN arrives at a time when climate change science is especially dire, and the activism around it especially arresting.
These two things aren’t unrelated, by the way. There are roughly 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world today, but half of them are expected to go extinct by the end of the century, chief among them indigenous and minority languages spoken in the regions of the world that are most impacted by climate change. It’s actually been established that biological diversity and linguistic diversity go hand in hand, and when one is lessened, the other tends to follow suit.
In this episode, we’ll get to listen to my very illuminating conversation with Daniel Bögre Udell, the director and co-founder of Wikitongues. Then we’ll convene for a lively roundtable discussion with some of my colleagues.
Before we get started, a reminder to rate and review Multilinguish wherever you listen and be sure you’re subscribed so you get new episodes as soon as they’re released.
Wikitongues is a volunteer movement to educate the world about linguistic diversity and equip them with the tools to revitalize and sustain endangered languages. For someone who works so intimately with languages and cultural lifeways that are teetering on the edge of extinction, Daniel is a lot more hopeful and optimistic than you might expect. Here’s what he had to say about this interesting crossroads we’re at as a species.
Steph: What do you consider to be the point of no return for an endangered language, and what does it mean for a language to be endangered?
Daniel Bögre Udell: Well, there is no point of no return. A language becomes endangered when it’s no longer being passed on to the next generation. But languages can be revitalized and if a language goes dormant, which is the preferred term for going extinct, it can be revived. For the purposes of this conversation, revitalization, revival, reclamation – that’s all the same thing, right?
Steph: Right, just don’t imply that it’s dead.
Daniel: Yeah, exactly. Don’t imply that it’s dead because it’s not. The first known example of language reclamation was in the 1800s when, amid a tide of rising anti-semitism, Jewish communities looked to Hebrew as a means of cultural revival. And it had been dormant as a spoken language since the second or fifth century, so over a thousand years, and today it’s the mother tongue of 5 million Jewish people and spoken as a second language by 4 million more Jewish people.
The idea that a language is inevitably endangered or permanently dormant is not true. Additionally, since the ’80s, there have been communities around the world doing the same thing. The Tunica language for instance, which is an indigenous language of Louisiana, went dormant in 1948. There’s 32 new fluent speakers today, some of whom have children and who are teaching their children Tunica, potentially raising up the…and it’s a much smaller scale. There are about a thousand members of the Tunica-Biloxi tribe, but 10 percent are enrolled in language immersion and so, there was no point of no return.
Steph: That’s so cool. That’s kind of heartening to hear because it kind of seems like where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Daniel: Precisely… with all of this stuff. As long as the cultural identity remains and the community survives, the community can always bring its language back. Assuming there’s documentation.
Steph: Right. Which is why that first step is so important.
Steph: I know from some of my own research into this matter that there seems to be a link between areas that have high biodiversity and areas with high linguistic diversity, which is usually around the equator. In that sense, would you say that there are certain languages that are more at risk of going extinct, or dormant, I should say?
Daniel: Absolutely. There are two factors. The first is political. Only about 2 percent of languages are recognized by their own governments, which means for most people, the public sphere is not accessible in their language, right? It also means that there is no state support for learning your language, and so it becomes increasingly difficult to pass it on to the next generation. Historically, there was abject persecution of language minorities. Today, the problem is a little more of a failure to make reparation for past injustice.
However, there are some places in the world where language minorities are still actively being discriminated against. If your government has a specific agenda with regards to eliminating your culture, then your language is absolutely more at risk. And then areas that are threatened by climate change are also at risk of language loss. The Pacific, the Amazon, there are several hundred indigenous languages of Brazil, mostly spoken by people who live in the Amazon. When forest fires threaten territory in the Amazon, that also threatens the lives of these people and the cultures that they carry.
Steph: Right. Because you get climate refugees, and they have to assimilate in new places.
Daniel: Precisely. Also it’s an interesting assumption that a displaced community would have to assimilate, right? Assuming we think about Pacific Island nations whose entire homelands are threatened if an entire Pacific nation has to relocate, why should they have to assimilate? Their loss of territory should not mean the loss of their sovereignty.
It all comes down to politics I think. But obviously if you live in a place that’s threatened by climate change, that also impacts your language and your culture.
Steph: Totally. And I guess there’s also the added component of if you’re moving to a new area, you want to learn the language that’s going to give you the most opportunities. From a business perspective—from job opportunities and stuff like that. If you speak a minority language, sometimes that’s not enough to really get ahead in the world or survive.
Daniel: Sure. And that’s always been the case. That need not be a reason for a language to disappear. And in fact, people whose mother tongues are minority languages tend to be the most multilingual people out there because they don’t have a choice. They got to learn a lot of languages. I think it’s a false choice to present to people that it’s either English or your language, or Spanish or your language, or Mandarin or your language. Common languages have always existed throughout history, whether it was Arabic at the height of the Caliphate or Latin at the height of Rome’s power. Communities can still keep their languages alive as long as they’re not forced to abandon them.
Steph: Obviously, there’s a lot of negative consequences that occurs when this happens. But what do you think is the single worst of them all?
Daniel: Well, languages, they’re kind of the glue that binds a community together. When you take a people’s language from them, you’re taking the way they express their cultural heritage, their commonality. It’s a destruction of community really. And there are a few instances of language persecution that aren’t tied to broader kinds of persecution. If we look at the United States, the history of persecuting indigenous languages is tied directly to broken treaties, land theft, genocide. Yiddish in Europe is directly tied to the loss of Yiddish in Europe among Ashkenazi Jews is directly tied to the Holocaust, et cetera.
It is terrible to have your culture taken from you. And it’s been demonstrated that in places where language revitalization is active, mental health is usually better. People do better in school, there are lower suicide rates, lower rates of substance abuse. And that’s because when you’re able to connect with your parentage, that’s a really important thing for your mental health. I think it’s a really a transgression of justice when languages are marginalized and taken from their communities.
There are also questions of collective human knowledge that we lose when languages go extinct. There are entire fields of science dedicated to unraveling wisdom from language diversity. Ethnobiology works on identifying new species of flora and fauna to accelerate conservation efforts by looking at the vocabulary of languages in biodiverse regions, and then that breaks down into different fields. There’s ethno-ornithology, which looks at leveraging linguistic diversity to accelerate bird conservation. There’s ethnobotany, which does the same for plants. Then there’s paleolinguistics, which looks at clues to human prehistory from the way that languages change across geographies. There is linguistic evidence at the Bering Strait migration, for instance. Because Alaskan languages and Siberian language, I mean, not all, but a lot of Alaskan and a lot of Siberian languages share genealogical roots.
Steph: One of the things that surprised me a lot was that this link between climate change and language loss kind of seems to go both ways.
Steph: It’s not just climate change displacing people and making them lose those community bonds that keep the language alive. But it’s also, there’s very little of the Earth’s landscape that hasn’t been affected by humans. Within these languages there’s a whole body of knowledge around how to live in harmony with the environment, and encoded in these languages is the knowledge of how to care for the ecosystem.
Daniel: Precisely, because every human culture has knowledge about its environment and that gets expressed through the language of that community. Absolutely, language is the great library of human experience and knowledge and when half the world’s languages are at risk of disappearing, that means the library is effectively on fire.
Steph: What can the average person do to be part of the solution?
Daniel: I would say learn about multilingualism, normalize multilingualism. If you speak more than one language, speak them all proudly as much as you can. I think if you only speak one language, even if you’re an adult, learn another. And don’t just learn one of the 10 languages that you think you’re supposed to learn because those are the “useful languages,” learn about the ancestral language of where you live. Unless that language is something that’s sacred and private to its culture, learn it.
One of the big challenges that minoritized people face in the way that they become culturally displaced in the first place is that other people move to where they live and they don’t learn their language. Then they’re forced to accommodate the majority language in their own home where they’re from.
Steph: And also to your point earlier about moving somewhere where there’s a minority language, with the exception of cases, like you said, where it might be sacred to the culture, I think that people who speak minority tongues really appreciate it when people make the effort to speak to them in their language. They don’t see that every day and so… There’s an argument to be made for sure, it might make more demographic sense to learn the majority tongue because there’s simply going to be more opportunities to use it. But if you’re living in an area like that, you never know the level of connection that you’re going to be able to experience with the people there just because you made an effort to say hello to them in their mother tongue.
Steph It’s a quantity over quality thing, I think.
Daniel: Yes. And I would also go as far to say that the people who make that excuse aren’t busy learning another majority language. The people who go, “Huh, I’m not going to learn this language, I’d rather learn Mandarin,” aren’t actually learning Mandarin.
Steph: Right, true, true.
Daniel: Right? And you can do both because the more languages you learn, the easier it becomes to learn another one. Granted, it’s much easier for little kids, but adults are much better at it than we think and part of it just boils down to getting over that initial embarrassment of not being understood again.
Steph: Right. Whereas, I think that it’s more likely that someone from an area that speaks a minority tongue won’t mind your mistakes. They’ll just be thrilled that you’re trying.
Steph: Right. Are we winning a little bit more than we were a couple of years ago?
Daniel: Yes, I would back up and actually say the past 30 years has been a process of turning the ship around. Interestingly enough, if you go back to the 80s, that’s when countries around the world started rolling back decades of discriminatory language policy. In the United States we ended the residential boarding school system where indigenous children were taken from their families and sent to be Anglicized. The federal government ended the requirement to go to those schools in 1978.
Canada and Australia similarly ended their versions of that in the late ’70s, early ’80s. Finland had a similar thing for Sami people and that ended in the ’80s. In the ’90s, what was to become the European Union passed a European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. In 2003, the federal government in Mexico amended the constitution to prohibit language discrimination in public schools because before that, it was very common for there to be Spanish-only policies in Mexican public schools.
This has happened all over the world and it all kind of came to a close in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s. There has been an opening and a kind of reawakening of value being placed on cultural diversity and cultural heritage and ancestral languages. With the freedom to sustain their languages, communities around the world have been working on that really actively. And it’s really hard to know if a language in the past few years has reawakened and is growing or hasn’t, right?
It’s like these kinds of really long trends that we have to look at, but anecdotally, I’ve definitely seen a kind of explosion in media around the issue of language diversity and much more conversation about it in kind of just the general public sphere, space and that’s been a really cool thing to see. Wikitongues has volunteers in over 100 countries.
Steph: Do you think it was because of globalization? Like it kind of reached a point at that time, or?
Daniel: That’s a really cool point. I wasn’t going to bring up globalization, but I think that definitely has something to do with it. If all of a sudden it’s completely normal to hear a bunch of majority languages being spoken in the public sphere, why not minoritized languages too?
I think it’s also a logical extension of social justice and decolonization that happened over the 20th century and is still happening now. It’s coming off the heels of movements like the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The breakup and collapse of the British and French empires, logically would lead to people reclaiming their cultural sovereignty or perhaps claiming it for the first time.
Steph: It’s almost counterintuitive to what you think is happening because more and more, like you think it’s becoming more homogenized, right? Because everyone needs to learn English to succeed, but at the same time we’re seeing that people are starting to, like you said, place more value on minority languages too.
Daniel: Precisely. And that’s why I think that normalizing languages and normalizing linguistic diversity to whatever extent you can is so important.
Steph: Right. I mean, you kind of answered this, but what’s something that’s given you hope in the last year or two, especially?
Daniel: Learning that UNESCO and Ethnologue, who together kind of maintain the official census of all the world’s languages as well as the vitality scale of languages, had to add a reawakening category in the past decade.
Steph: That’s really cool.
Daniel: The vitality scale that used to go from national to dormant and having national be the top level is I think a little problematic, but that used to be it. But they recently had to add reawakening to accommodate languages like Tunica in Louisiana, or Cornish in the United Kingdom, which is another language that went dormant and has recently, in the past few decades been revived.
Steph: Do you think people would care more about this if we called them zombie languages?
Steph: Okay, good to think about.
Daniel: People love their zombies.
Steph: They do.
Daniel: Zombieland 2 is coming out by the way.
There are different words, language preservation, revitalization, reclamation then, and they get used interchangeably. I’ve noticed that reclamation gets used most in a personal context because you, the individual reclaims your language.
Steph: Oh, I like that.
Daniel: Whereas, revitalization is more of a social process. Preservation is increasingly not popular because it makes it sound like you’re preserving-
Steph: A corpse?
Daniel: Yes, exactly. Or an old painting in a museum kind of way. I like the term sustainability because it’s not just for languages that are necessarily endangered that require reclamation. Right? It can be like Hangi’s language Kihunde, in the DRC where that’s what he was raised and kids are being raised in it, but it’s underrepresented. The future feels uncertain, right?
Steph: You just can’t take for granted that it’s going to continue thriving in whatever capacity it has.
Daniel: Exactly. And I should probably add that when people, to any skeptics out there who still don’t think that language diversity is meaningful, no proponent of linguistic diversity thinks that languages shouldn’t evolve or change, they do and everyone is cool with that. It’s having language change on equitable terms.
Daniel: That’s what we’re talking about.
Steph: That’s a really important distinction. Well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate you coming in.
Daniel: Oh, of course, it’s my pleasure. I love talking about language and culture.
Steph: Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. And we’re here with another language learning lightning round. Ruben, what’s the embarrassing language mistake you’ve ever made?
Ruben Vilas: I think my most embarrassing mistake was my whole seven years in Germany where every time I spoke German it was one mistake after another. And I also had entire conversations without speaking to people. People approached me in the street, talking about my dogs and I’d be like, “Ja, ja,” I would say ja a lot. That means “yes” in German in case you don’t know.
Steph: Life is embarrassing.
Ruben: Life is embarrassing.
Ally Zhao: Well, I don’t have one huge mistake, but I think the most embarrassing thing that consistently happens to me when I try to speak another language is I have a similar grasp on French and Chinese. I will panic a lot if I have to speak French in France, and just speak some very awful combination of French and Chinese.
Steph: I feel this can’t be the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to me because I might have blocked that out. But one time that comes to mind is when my friend and I were traveling in Columbia. And we came up with a tagline for the trip, like “stupid gringa” every time one of us did something that was kind of awkward or weird.
And I remember I was taking artsy pictures of a dog sleeping at this tourist site and this man started speaking to me in Spanish, basically telling me like, “You could take pictures of the view.” And I tried to respond to him in Spanish and I think I said something to the effect of, “Yes there is view, but also, there is dog.” He looked so confused and just walked away.
Ally: I mean, the dog is the view.
Steph: The dog is the view, I agree.
Well, Babbel is designed to quickly get you speaking your new language within weeks, so you can hopefully be a little more smooth than I was. And its convenient lessons take only 10 to 15 minutes to complete. It won’t even take that much time out of your day.
Right now we’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50 percent off a three month subscription. New customers can get this offer by visiting babbel.com/podcast. That’s B-A-B-B-E-L.com/podcast.
Steph: I’m sitting here with my colleagues, Dylan Lyons, David Doochin, and Thomas Devlin. How are you guys doing?
Crew: Great, hi. How’re you yourself?
Steph: I’m great. I thought for this round table, I’m going to lead with two truths and a lie.
Steph: And it’s going to be up to you guys to figure out which one is not true.
Dylan: I’m excited.
Thomas: Sounds good.
Steph: All right.
Dylan: It’s like a dating app.
Steph: Yes, exactly. That’s kind of… I think I got this from Hinge. Okay. Number one is worldwide, endangered species populations and language speakers are both declining at similar rates, which is about 30 percent in 40 years.
Dylan: Oh, okay.
Steph: Number two. Endangered language speakers live in remote, rural areas around the equator. And then number three, when you crunch all the numbers, only about 0.1 percent of the world’s population is currently what’s keeping half of the world’s languages alive.
Dylan: Oh my God.
Steph: What do you think?
Thomas: I have my guess, which is number two is the lie.
David: I was going to say that.
Dylan: I also was going to say number two. Because I was going to say not, well, first of all, the other two are very staggering and usually the more staggering things are true in these games, but also I would guess that they don’t just live around the equator. They live everywhere.
David: I think of probably the Inuit languages that are way near the polar ice caps, I guess the North Pole. But people in Greenland or Northern parts of Canada, parts of Alaska, I don’t hear much about those languages, but I know they exist, so I’m sure they’re probably endangered or have a really small population of speakers.
Thomas: I mean, I know my normal technique of, well, I also felt like I knew the other two facts, but also the exact numbers I might be off on. But the normal technique of two truths and a lie, it’s always the lie is the one… they should all be things that you expect in a certain way. It should be shocking, each of them, so the lie is the one that’s shocking if it’s a lie and the truths are shocking if they’re true. At least that’s when I’m on Hinge and I’m trying to decide which one is the lie.
Dylan: Hinge does not sponsor this podcast.
Steph: A bonus point to our listeners is that if you get this right, you’re going to get more dates.
David: I just tend to lie for all three. Is that a bad strategy? That’s…
Steph: That’s actually kind of chaotic evil.
David: And then see what kind of responses I get so I can see what people actually think about me.
Thomas: What kind of lies?
David: Okay. Let’s say I have an identical twin brother.
Dylan: I also have that on mine, but that’s the only lie.
David: You have a twin brother, or you have that on…
Dylan: On my dating apps.
David: I was part of NASA’s original astronaut training program, but I had to drop out because I had a hip fracture.
Thomas: David is approximately 10 years old by the way.
David: That’s ten and a half. Thank you very much. And third is that I just celebrated my half birthday two days ago.
Dylan: But isn’t that true one day of the year?
David: Oh. Clearly it’s a lie. Should we get back to talking about language?
Steph: Yes, I think we should, I think we’re getting derailed a little bit. You guys were all right. I think that I probably could have tried a little bit harder to make it less… I feel the first two or the two that were true are really specific. Well, there is nuance to it though because for the most part, endangered language speakers are concentrated in rural areas around the equator. That part is true, but they don’t only live there. I think I kind of worded it in a slightly more general way to leave it open.
Dylan: There’s a high number of endangered language speakers near the equator but they also live in other places?
Steph: Yes, exactly. Actually, some of them live right here in New York City. That was kind of my takeaway when a little while ago I actually interviewed one of the directors of ELA, the Endangered Language Alliance, and they do a lot of their field work right here in New York City and there are actually some minority languages that have more speakers in New York City than they do in their home countries.
Steph: And there are languages that only have a handful of speakers left.
David: It’s like, how did they end up here? Is their population so small that a couple of them come here and then the ratio of people here to back in their home countries is big for that reason or is it there are a couple of thousand in their home country but there just happened to be a couple more thousand here?
Steph: I think it varies. I think sometimes there are issues like persecution at play. Well, I know one example. Like there’s the Bukharian language of the Bukharian Jews. It’s closely related to Persian, but there are actually more speakers of it in Queens than there are in Bukhara or Uzbekistan.
Thomas: Well, if you can make it here.
Steph: You can make it anywhere.
Thomas: But the languages are dying.
Steph: Well, dying but not dead.
David: But there are plenty that have died and are dead.
Steph: Yes. But actually it’s not technically correct to say that they’re dead because they’re just dormant.
David: Oh, because Hebrew, I was going to talk about, I mean, one of your questions earlier to us was just reflecting on endangered languages and what we should do about them, what our obligations are. I don’t know if you said it in those words, but that’s what I heard because I wasn’t listening. Basically, I was going to bring up the point that Hebrew used to be “dead.”
David: But now it’s in a huge revival, but it was hundreds of years later and it’s the work of scholars who brought it out of, I guess its hibernation or its dormancy and were like, we have a very specific use case for this and we’re going to… It’s part of a greater nationalistic effort too. I think that’s really cool to think that a language, if it’s well-documented enough, can make a comeback.
Dylan: So that’s why you call it dormant instead of dead because if you put in the work, it could potentially come back to life.
Dylan: That’s cool. I like that, I like that. It’s like, see you later instead of goodbye.
Thomas: I find that too optimistic kind of. Because I mean, Hebrew is the only example I know of languages coming back to life. And I also just think because the language is usually tied to the culture, well, it’s complex. The problem is that there are so many languages that are “dying.” Now I need to adjust my language.
Steph: No, but you’re the death expert. You can say that.
Thomas: That’s true.
Dylan: The resident cynic.
Thomas: There are so many languages that are dying and we can say a statistic like, once every two weeks a language dies?
Steph: I think something like that, yes.
Thomas: You can say that, but then also there are people tied to that also. You have to kind of think about trying to make grand proclamations about any language stuff, it’s hard, right?
David: For sure. And I think that there probably aren’t enough people working at a rate that’s fast enough to make up for all of the languages that are dying off. Like if one is dying off every two weeks, I don’t know if that’s true, but I believe it. I don’t think we have enough scholars who are actively reviving one language every two weeks and releasing it to the community for everyone to use.
Steph: Right. That’s true. From a collective perspective, we’re not going to get all of them back. We’re going to get maybe a small handful of them back. Right?
David: Right. But that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently wrong to let them go the way that they do. I mean, that’s the central question I guess, is what duty do we have to preserve them? And I think that it’s always a worthwhile endeavor to document and to preserve to the best ability that we can but I just don’t think that there’s enough work. I don’t think realistically we can say that it’s within our power to save every language that’s dying off. Maybe we should, but I don’t think that’s super practical, but I think, I mean, we should obviously preserve as much as we can.
Dylan: How do you preserve a language that is endangered?
Steph: Well, there are different ways to go about it. I think one of the main sort of cornerstone components is just documenting it. Having archives, I think that’s what Wikitongues really focuses on, is having volunteers submit videos of them speaking the language. If you have these sort of recordings then other people can go back to them eventually so that there’s a basis to understand how the language is spoken, what it sounded like. And then some of it too is just actually like putting the tools in the hands of the local communities so that they can start either teaching it to kids. I think passing it on to younger generations is a really big part of keeping them alive.
Dylan: Yeah, that makes sense. I remember reading something about how in Hawaii they were showing films in the Hawaiian language in order to keep it alive in the youth.
David: I think popular media is probably huge for preserving languages and the traditions and the folk narratives that are tied into them. You brought up movies, I think that’s extremely important because those are going to be really effective learning tools for not only kids, but anyone who wants to engage with something that’s more than just texts on a page or in a textbook. If a child really wants to connect with his or her heritage and maybe Hawaiian, I don’t think Hawaiian is endangered, is it? I don’t know, but it’s still a great example of, if I’m a kid and I know my grandparents grew up speaking Hawaiian and I want to connect with that part of my roots, I’m going to be much more inclined to watch a movie or listen to a song than I am to just pick up a dictionary and study it that way.
Steph: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Right. Cause then it’s connected to something that feels kind of human and real and it’s not just like you’re sitting there memorizing vocab.
David: I think probably oral tradition is really important too. Having elders who know stories that are passed down from generation to generation. To document them probably gives a lot of insight into where the language has been and how it’s evolved up until today. I think there’s probably a lot of storytelling that gets captured too.
Steph: Yeah. So, I mean, this is a question that might have an obvious answer, but maybe it’s not so obvious. I guess from your own perspective, why would you say it matters if languages die?
Thomas: I’ve read a lot about language death before and I think language death when you think about it, you just intuitively are like, “It’s bad.” I mean the word death, you’re like you don’t want things to die.
I think it’s very easy to theoretically think about how obviously this is a symptom of the culture changing and things can be lost. There’s knowledge that’s kept in languages where when the language is lost, that knowledge is also lost. But I recently read a book called A Death in the Rainforest by Don Kulick, which kind of put, I think a spin on the question that kind of spoke more to me personally and just as a human being. Because as I was saying, when a language dies, it’s not just a statistic that happens, but it’s also each one is a different community of people and each of these communities is going through something different.
This book focused on Don Kulick, who went to this one very small secluded community in Papua New Guinea to study the village of Gapun. He was studying this language Tayap, and he went in as a linguist and when you’re doing linguistics work, it’s kind of a set things that you study. Like why are they not teaching Tayap? And then the language that was coming in was Tok Pisin, which is originally a pidgin of English and the language of Papua New Guinea, but it eventually became one of their national languages.
He originally was studying how is this change happening from Tayap to Tok Pisin. And he basically got the initial very scientific study down, but then when he spent more time with these people he realized there’s just so many factors in play. And one of the biggest factors is just Tok Pisin is a way that they could try to better their station in the country because they’re secluded but also they are connected to other communities.
And so when a language has more prestige, they just think that’s better to learn because basically these people had come in from the outside and they showed them the world outside of Papua New Guinea, they showed cars and stuff, which they had not seen. It’s given them this idea of there is a better world than just farming and doing work all day. And they wanted that, but they weren’t actually given the tools to get there, and so this language is just dying because they kept on trying to adapt to things that generally white colonialists would bring in or non-governmental organizations or other things and no one would ever stay long enough to really help them better their situation.
It was just kind of sad because they were just, and also English was the highest of prestige and they were… he studied people’s love letters that people would be sending because some of them learned how to write, even though Tayap never had writing originally. And they would just write these weird English phrases that no one really knew what they mean. Well, just having English was like, “intelligence.” Anyway, I feel like I’m rambling.
Steph: No, no. It’s all good.
Thomas: The overall point is that the language is dying, but it’s also the causes of it are so entwined with history and everything. And so when this language dies, it’s like a side effect of just bad things having happened in the past.
Steph: Right. It’s almost never just an organic like, “Well, this is just dying of its own accord.” There’s usually some sort of subtle form of violence at play. Either climate change is a contributing factor in this and you could argue that some of the most vulnerable communities the government also hasn’t taken meaningful steps to prevent it or protect them. And then there’s been active persecution of language minorities in the past. There’s been genocides, there’s just been from a state support perspective, the government won’t always give the tools or resources to minority language speakers. There’s no, I guess, infrastructure to help them thrive.
Thomas: I mean, the example of governments is definitely a good one because a lot of the time it will be like the government uses one language and especially in colonialist times, that’d be a big thing where English was brought in as the government language. And if they did not force people to learn English, then the other language would just exist underneath and it could survive sometimes, but other times it would just eventually get crushed.
David: Well, another really good example is in apartheid-era South Africa, the native Bantu languages that were indigenous African languages got forced out culturally and sort of implicitly but also explicitly by policy. And the Afrikaners, who were the white descendants of the Dutch colonialists from the mid 1600s, had their own Dutch offshoot language called Afrikaans, and that became the language of the nationalist white apartheid movement. They ended up segregating children into black Bantu schools and white Afrikaner schools with, I mean, there’s a whole racial nuance and multi-dimensional fabric of African or South African racial relations. I’m not going to capture it at all because I don’t know too much about it.
But basically the idea was, we’re going to separate white and black children and what they called colored children, or people who didn’t fall into either category. They’re going to teach Bantu languages in these Bantu schools, but not teach any of those kids the skilled labor or the skills that they need to do skilled labor and we’re just going to teach them the very basics like to farm and to make things with their hands, whereas, all of the white children got the most advanced educations that they could give them. That’s a very concrete example of a government saying, “We have two very distinct language policies. One language is associated with these people who are viewed as better or more deserving than the other and we’re going to use language as a tool to drive them apart.”
Dylan: Another I guess more modern and less dark example I guess, less grim, is in Ireland, because most people in Ireland speak English, but I guess the government wants to keep the Irish language alive. All the signs are in Irish as well, Gaelic, I guess, and there are definitely attempts by the government to foster the use of the original language.
Thomas: Irish is definitely a good example especially, because often what will save a language from the brink of being quashed is if that language can become a cultural symbol. If the society decides this is important for us, that will help it survive because they’ll want to teach their children, but if they don’t see their language as important, then that’s when it kind of can more go away.
Steph: I think one of the more interesting things that I learned from all of this was that it’s not just about, obviously, there’s so much knowledge and information encoded in these languages, especially as they relate to ecosystems and things like that. But actually, when people lose their language and their culture, it has a distinct effect on their mental health as well. It’s kind of a way of demoralizing people, especially if you’re trying to, from the perspective of a colonizer or oppressor if you’re trying to get them to assimilate.
Dylan: Yeah, I didn’t even think of it like that, but that makes sense.
David: You also take away their power too by not letting them use or not encouraging them to use their native language because that’s the one they know best. That’s the one that they’ve grown up making bonds with their family and friends with and building entire communities. If you come in and say, “We’re going to reduce the amount that you use this, call you out when you do, maybe punish you, who knows? But you have to use the substitute.” It’s going to take people a long time to be able to effectively use the colonizer’s language. That’s going to take away from their ability to participate in economic systems, political systems, and inherently will just disenfranchise them.
Steph: All right. Thank you guys.
Crew: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
Dylan: Long live languages.
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