The issue of language death is not an abstract one. There are movements around the world to revive a number of languages that are in danger of extinction. These are thriving efforts to pass these languages along to new generations.
Irish Gaelic is one of the most famous of these movements, and there is another one for Irish Gaelic’s fellow Celtic language, Welsh. There is another Celtic language that is spoken across the English Channel in France that’s called Breton, and there is a Breton preservation movement. There are also language preservation movements that are particularly well known for Maori, the Polynesian language of New Zealand, and Hawaiian, which is another Polynesian language, closely related to Maori, spoken in Hawaii.
The Future Prospects for 6,000 Languages
Some people involved in these efforts are more optimistic than others, and there is a question as to whether we can maintain all 6,000 of the world’s languages. One might want to posit that there are two extremes: one is that everybody in the world speaks nothing but English; the other is that we preserve all 6,000 of the world’s languages, even though most people on Earth will continue to speak one of the top 20 languages as well. As so often is the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
English will be the primary language, the public language, for increasing numbers of people. But that doesn’t mean that languages spoken by tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people tightly tied to a culture, to a way of life, perhaps even to a worldview, are going to disappear in favor of English.
The chance that everybody in the world is going to speak only English is very slim. If it looks that way to us, that’s partly because as American English speakers, most of us are not as deeply familiar with the ordinariness of bilingualism and multilingualism as are many people. English will be the primary language, the public language, for increasing numbers of people. But that doesn’t mean that languages spoken by tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people tightly tied to a culture, to a way of life, perhaps even to a worldview, are going to disappear in favor of English. Languages exist alongside each other. So Finnish probably isn’t in danger of disappearing. Koreans are not going to stop speaking Korean. It seems highly unlikely, if only because of habit. Because Koreans do speak Korean and Finns do speak Finnish, precisely what would induce them to stop it?
But as for maintaining all 6,000 of the languages in the world today as living, spoken varieties, that is as unlikely as the idea of English truly taking over the world. There are many obstacles, and they are large ones.
Languages without Alphabets
It has been said that once there is a revival movement for a language, the language is already dead, and there is some truth to the notion. For example, there’s the issue of status. Often, people who speak an indigenous language that is not written don’t think of it as real, because it isn’t written; it isn’t used in wider communications. Very often, linguists and anthropologists and maybe missionaries, for other purposes, are more interested in preserving the language than the speakers themselves may be.
Very often, linguists and anthropologists and maybe missionaries, for other purposes, are more interested in preserving the language than the speakers themselves may be.
Whether or not that’s correct, it’s a very easy impression to have. It’s perhaps even defensible on an advanced philosophical level. That means that sometimes you are telling people to preserve something that they don’t really think is worthwhile. And you only have one generation before a language dies out.
Then there’s another problem, which is urbanization as people move from the countryside to the city. The problem is that in the city generally there is some big, fat language spoken. You, out wherever you were, spoke something interesting and exotic. But then you come to the city, and the only people you can use that language with are the people who happen to have come along with you or some people who have gotten there before you. There might be a neighborhood. You might have some friends. But you’re going to have to learn that big language.
Then, if you marry, the chances are very small that the person you marry is going to speak your one-thousand-speaker language. If she speaks something else, what you two speak to each other is probably going to be the big, fat language. Then, if you have kids, that’s what you’re mostly going to use to talk to them. Even if you have a relatively insular family and you manage to pass on not one but two indigenous languages while you’re living in a tall building and only visiting the countryside occasionally, what are the chances that those kids are going to know those two languages, or even one of them, well? Then, what are the chances that they are going to marry someone else who speaks one of those languages?
Urbanization tends to promulgate the more dominant languages that are used in that context over the less-spoken languages.
What all this means is that urbanization tends to promulgate the more dominant languages that are used in that context over the less-spoken languages. To the extent that people are moved to go to a big metropolis, that spells language death for the languages that are not spoken there. There’s a very intelligent work on language death called Vanishing Voices by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine. Its thesis is that we must create conditions for people to be able to stay on their land, instead of going to the cities, because, once you go into the city, your indigenous language is probably dead. Only keeping people on their land would save their language. Of course, here you run up against the idea that you’re going to tell someone, “Don’t move to the city and try to make more money, and try to see movies, because you should stay out here in the country, and speak that language that you think is a mouthful of air and that I think of as exotic because I had time to get a Ph.D. and sit around and think about things like that.” That’s hard. So it’s a question, and it’s not a pleasant question.
Dying Languages, Fewer Speakers
Then there’s another problem, which is that by the time a language is dying, often most of the people who are speaking it are no longer using the full vocabulary or the grammar anyway. Once you can say, “Oh dear, this language is on its way, already there’s this slightly pidginized version of it being spoken,” then even if you revive it, the version that is being passed on is highly abbreviated. So you have to decide, what does it mean to pass the language on if the conditions prevent you from passing it on in anything like its full vibrancy?
If what you’ve got is a dictionary and a grammatical description and a translation of parts of the New Testament and then a couple of other things scratched on paper bags. That’s not a written language…
Of course, if the language is written, then you can go to books and find out what is decaying. But the chances are slim that a language that has a long written tradition is going to be dying that way. It happens, but usually the language that’s dying wasn’t written much anyway, except by outsiders such as linguists who consider the language exotic. But that’s not real writing, if what you’ve got is a dictionary and a grammatical description and a translation of parts of the New Testament and then a couple of other things scratched on paper bags. That’s not a written language, that’s a spoken language, and that’s not enough to revive it. So you’ve got problems like that.
Teaching Dying Languages to Adults
Then there’s another problem in these situations, which oddly enough is rarely discussed among language revivalists. It’s not a matter of pessimism. It’s a matter of thoroughly compassionate but hard-nosed reality. That is, languages are difficult. The fact is that if you are trying to revive a language, you’re talking about teaching people how to speak a language, not be able to read it, and not be able to use it on a junior semester abroad. The idea is that you’re supposed to be speaking this language—a lot! That is a hard thing to teach people, especially because the languages that are dying tend to be small and indigenous, and those languages tend to be the hardest languages in the world.
Dying languages aren’t like Spanish. They are not like Dutch. They are languages where they were rarely learned by outsiders and they got very, very complicated.
It’s very rare that we have a language dying that is as user-friendly as Spanish. Spanish is hard enough. Not only is Spanish similar to English, but Spanish is approachable in many ways. If you are an English speaker and you want to learn a language, and you’re over the age of 12, go for Spanish. That’s the one that will beat you up the least. Dying languages aren’t like Spanish. They are not like Dutch. They are languages where they were rarely learned by outsiders and they got very, very complicated. This includes the Celtic languages. People have not been learning Irish Gaelic as a second language until very recently. This was an in-group language. A language like Maori was an in-group language.
So here we come, and we want to learn them, but these were languages that were designed to be learned by humans at a stage when they are still in diapers. An unconscious learning. Then all of a sudden there you are with a pad. It’s extremely difficult. It is, in fact, something that you might want to devote a hobbyist’s attention to, and all of us are very busy. Often, one senses an idea that when you are teaching someone a language, then you are teaching them words. Oh, that it were that easy! “The word in Mohawk for ‘ant’ is this. The word in Mohawk for ‘raise’ is this.”
The Grammar of Dying Languages
But it doesn’t work that way, as we know if we have ever learned languages. We’re talking about grammar as well as words, and grammar is the hard part. If learning a language was a matter of taking 5,000 flash cards, laying them out on the floor of the garage, and getting yourself to the point where you knew every word, we wouldn’t have any problem. But if you’re trying to help keep Mohawk alive—and there is such a movement—you’ve got a long way to go beyond teaching somebody the words, and the grammar is tough.
More to the point, opinions will differ as to what tough is, but we have to think about the fact that these languages are very different from English. For example, Mohawk is a fantastically interesting language. There is a good, strong movement behind it to keep it from being eclipsed by larger languages such as English or French. This is great, except that when you’re trying to teach somebody Mohawk, it’s not just a matter of teaching them words, it’s a matter of dealing with a language where thoughts are put together in very different ways than English speakers are used to, counterintuitively different ways.
Take an English sentence such as Suddenly, she heard someone give a yell from across the street—real simple. Our sense of language, if we’ve learned European languages, is that it’s going to be “she heard,” and there is going to be some verb for “heard.” Then there is the word for “someone.” Then “give a yell” where we are going to find some word that means “yell.” Then, “from across the street.” So we’re going to have a word for “street” and the part about “from across” is actually kind of tricky, no matter what language you are going to. But we’ll figure it out and we’ll get a feel for it and we’ll be fine.
If you’re going to teach somebody to really express themselves in that language, well enough and constantly enough to pass that language on to children in the cradle, then think of all the work it’s going to take.
In Mohawk, the way the sentence Suddenly, she heard someone give a yell from across the street comes out is Suddenly, by what you could hear, there, it beyond the street, the ear went to who just then made shouted back towards her. If you learned what the words for all those things are, you’re fine. But how would you intuit that that’s the way that thought would be arranged? Suddenly, by what you could hear—so not she heard—suddenly, by what you could hear, there, it beyond the street—you need that it. So it beyond the street—then you didn’t hear—the ear went to, who just then made shouted [made a shout]—yelled. So you have to know that it’s going to be made a shout—there might not even be a word yell—back towards her.
That’s really difficult. This sentence is not an idiom, and it’s not as if Mohawk has this one eccentric way of saying suddenly she heard someone give a yell from across the street. That’s grammar; that is normal.
How do you teach somebody that? If you’re going to teach somebody to really express themselves in that language, well enough and constantly enough to pass that language on to children in the cradle, then think of all the work it’s going to take. Do we have time for building this ship in a bottle? Most people don’t. So that’s a problem.
Problems with Context
There’s an aphorism that languages are learned best on the pillow.
Another problem about learning is that context is so important when really learning a language. You can be given things by a Berlitz book or even by a good teacher, but nothing replaces actually using the language in situations. That can’t be escaped. There’s an aphorism that languages are learned best on the pillow. What it means is that the most intimate kind of interactions that you could have with somebody day to day are the ones that will hammer a language into you the best.
Now take the whole language and see how learning a language is about things like that. Now here you are and it’s a revival movement. You’re supposed to be learning the Hawaiian language, and you’re taking about 45 minutes of Hawaiian every three days, or maybe every week, or even every day, and you’re sitting in a classroom. But no matter how good the teacher is, it’s not contextual. It’s not real; it’s a pedagogical situation.
Hebrew: A Success Story
A lot of revivalists look at Hebrew for inspiration. This is a language that definitely did come up from the ground and become the language of Israel today. Millions of people speak it. It is spoken from the cradle by Israeli babies. It has risen from being a liturgical language to a spoken one. But Israel was a unique circumstance. It was a new land entirely. Immigrants speaking several languages came to that land and needed a language in common, so that was important. This was a language that had been richly preserved in writing, which is unusual for a language that’s being brought up from the ground. This was a people who had a tradition of a particular relationship with the printed page, which is not true of most peoples. Writing is an artifice. In addition, the use of Hebrew was associated with a very powerful and discrete religious impulse. The idea being that this rooted you in the cosmos to speak this language.
Those conditions are not coming together in any of these other language revival situations. The reasons that people want to revive the languages are quite laudable. But the reasons are not ones that are going to hit one in the gut and create an almost obsessive desire to use a language you didn’t grow up with.
In terms of room for hope, we might want to start thinking about a difference between spoken languages and taught languages. As time goes on, many more languages than we are used to are going to survive, but as second languages rather than as first ones.
In terms of room for hope, we might want to start thinking about a difference between spoken languages and taught languages. As time goes on, many more languages than we are used to are going to survive, but as second languages rather than as first ones. It’s more common than we Westerners often know for a person to speak a language or two that they have learned after their teenage years, or even rather late in life, for the mundane reasons of work or trade. They don’t speak the whole language, but they have certainly got enough. With Irish and Welsh and Breton and Maori and Hawaiian, those languages are going to be passed on to the point that many, but not all, people have a kind of proficiency in them which they use to some extent, just as, for most of us, French and Spanish occupy that place. Most of us don’t claim to speak perfect French or Spanish. But we had it in school. Some of us kept it up; most of us can speak a bit of one of those two languages, probably a bit more than a bit. We probably could get most of a newspaper article.
That’s what those languages that are being revived are probably going to be like. Irish Gaelic is not going to vanish from Ireland. But the idea of most, or even a significant portion of Ireland’s population speaking Irish Gaelic in a fluent way is rather remote.