Crisis of Endangered Languages

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People and communities around the world are engaging in language conservation efforts with the hope of documenting and preserving our linguistic heritage and diversity.  Every single effort is a success story because it represents a positive change.  However, despite all these efforts worldwide I hear many of my students, activists, colleagues, and the community members I collaborate with ask the question “Where do I start? What do I do?” 

Much of the discussion and research on language conservation over the last two or three decades has been dedicated to convincing others that there is a problem.  Much of the published writing and thinking on this topic is an attempt to find a new way to spin the issue to different audiences.  This has been important work because the more informed people are the more likely a difference will be made.  However, the questions asked above represent an important issue for all language activists and linguists: they represent our inability to communicate beyond the basic need and issues.  It seems students, linguists, community members, and interested individuals get it – the issue is clear – but what do they do now?  Globally, and in general, people are convinced about the need.  It is time to move on to more tangible goals. 

Hundreds of pages are published each month on the best models and practices for language documentation and its twin sister language revitalization, but very few of these pages actually detail the how and what of dealing with endangered languages.   Of course, there is great work going on all over the world, and I don’t mean to undervalue it.  However, the main stage for the discussion about endangered languages is the post-graduate university.  In this environment, the focus is naturally on measured discussion and philosophizing.  What is needed is to move the discussion into the communities that need help documenting their languages.    

I feel very strongly about this need.  I spend a lot of time helping community members develop their own goals and plans for language documentation.  Sometimes these goals do not follow the best practices I was trained to follow, but I never correct them because at least they are doing something.

In order to appreciate this issue let me give you a bit of background on the endangered language crisis and its twin offspring language documentation and revitalization:

Concern for the loss of language is probably as old as linguistics itself.  The first mention of this concern is found, in fact, in the oldest known grammatical description in the world: Panini’s Sanskrit grammar.  However, this concern was about the loss of “correct usage” or “the purity of language”.  In Western Civilization, prior to the current era (i.e., before the Renaissance), language loss was a concern for only a few individuals using two or three languages that had been canonized as ‘superior’.  Thus, for example, the concern was for the ‘correct’ usage of Latin, Greek, or Hebrew.  In this scenario it was the correct usage of a language that was endangered and perhaps not the language itself.[i]  

Later, during the colonization period of the world, Western Europe became suddenly aware of the diversity in tongues from all over the world.  Grammars were published (or at least written) from all the major colonies of the Western European empires, about many of the various indigenous languages of these areas.  The concern wasn’t that these languages would die out or be lost, but that they would disappear before they had a chance to be studied.  In fact, the speakers of non-European languages were often pushed to lose their languages in the hopes of cultural progression.  However, this shift (which was always an unwritten policy, and for some may still be) was necessary only after the languages were described.  This eventually evolved into an unwritten policy of cultural shift through the native languages themselves (at least in Latin America).  Efforts with language conservation often became important simply because the superstrate culture needed to govern.  Language documentation became the means to an end: a cultural homogenous national and global community.   

In the early twentieth century American linguists became concerned about language loss and reverted back to an earlier motivation: the information that would be lost.  So, an entire generation of professional linguists dedicated their entire careers to the study of Native American languages and their descriptions.  Linguists, like Boas, Sapir, and Bloomfield were actively engaged in this type of documentation as a means to explore the workings of language (i.e., data for theory building) and historical hypotheses about the development of language and cultures on the American continent.

Eventually, notable developments (such as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) led many linguists to realize that language loss was more significant than merely a loss of linguistic information - it represented a loss of integral cultural, social, and individual information.  With this shift in thinking, languages were being documented so that humankind’s condition (in all of its varieties) might be better understood.  Language loss, while a concern, was not considered a crisis.  Linguists worked against the clock to document languages, but the reasons were still self-serving (data for theories and knowledge).

Then in 1992, a special session at the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America was convened to discuss what had then become quite alarming: the loss of the world’s linguistic diversity.  This session, and its subsequent publication in the journal Language as Hale et al (1992), served as a call to arms for professional linguists all over the world.  The loss of languages became a crisis of unreported significance and the languages being lost were re-labeled as endangered.[ii]  It is in this series of papers that an outline of future action was given to guide concerned linguists and community members.  The famous quote from Michael Kraus (1992:10) sums up the call to action nicely:

“Obviously we must do some serious rethinking of our priorities, lest linguistics go down in history as the only science that presided obliviously over the disappearance of 90% of the field to which it is dedicated”.

Linguists all over the world took this call seriously and a renewed interest in linguistic fieldwork, language documentation, and language description ensued.  Another shift in thinking occurred, and the world realized that we document languages not only to preserve vanishing information but because a spoken language is a fundamental human right.  Individuals should not be punished for natively speaking a language different than those used by individuals in power (socially, politically, or religiously). 

However, action was limited (often for very difficult socio-political reasons) and what has resulted is discussion.  This is not to imply that discussion of the issues is irrelevant, because it can further our understanding and ability to act.  Rather only discussion does very little for the problem.  Of course, there are some great strides in the field: there are lobbying campaigns within the United States; some workshops such as colang and the breath of life program are actions; but the great majority of linguists are waiting for the next person to solve the problem.  The call to action in 1992 was honored in 2011, with less of a concern for action and more of a concern for hypothetical solutions.[iii]

What is needed is more action!  So what can be done?  What can you do today?  Let me highlight some actions I think are especially important.    

$11.      Funding.  Language documentation efforts require funding.  We have to fund community activities, we have to fund linguist consultants, and we have to fund program building and materials creation.  However, funding is not something that comes only from international research grants.  It costs very little to document a language (much less than some linguists want to admit).  A person with no training at all can help fund language conservation efforts.

$12.      Goals and Outcomes.  One of the most obvious problems for the crisis of endangered languages is that there is no way to measure success or positive change.  There are, of course, very broad measurements, such as determining how many languages are being spoken or learned by communities all around the world out of the total population of languages.  However, this measurement is a retrospective one; we can only know that a difference has been made after the ‘dust’ settles.  Measurement of success will be different for each community and language.  In one case a word list will be success, in another a language nest program will be.  If you work with a language community in any capacity one of the most important things to do is establish community specific goals and outcomes.   

$13.      Surveys.  This is perhaps one of the most pressing needs around the world.  Linguists have a rough estimate of the number of languages spoken in the world, the numbers of speakers of most of those languages, and the places where they are spoken – often we publish catalogs with this kind of information.  However, much of this information is old and outdated and does not include the social variables of language use.  There is a real need to survey where a language is spoken, when it is spoken, who can understand it, who speaks it, and what past work has been done with its speakers.   

$14.      Learning Materials. Communities have less need of a grammar than they do for teaching and learning materials and programs.  Often when talking about language documentation we focus just on the academic outcomes like a grammatical description.  While this is essential, in many cases it is less useful for the community.  To be sure grammars, dictionaries, audio/visual recordings, and texts are essential preliminaries to combating language endangerment, but measureable effects will be seen in the application of these materials for the community.  These descriptive outcomes must be redeveloped as learning materials and teaching tools.  In most cases this implies the need for training of linguists and community members in the use of the descriptive tools in fulfilling community needs.  The outcomes of such efforts can include (but are not limited to) school books (or translations of already existing ones), primers, story books, media (in most cases endangered language community members want to use the latest technology like the rest of us), and other educational materials.        

$15.      Audio/Visual material.  In the long term, relevant and properly created audio/visual materials are of extreme importance.  These materials allow future generations of linguists and community members to hear and see the past.  This is especially important in communities where the language(s) are no longer spoken or are limited to specific social spheres.  A word of caution, however: not all aspects of a culture and language can or should be recorded in this way.  Effort should be made to make a tangible record of the actual facts of language use that the community deems appropriate.   

$16.      Local training institutes.  There are many great efforts in raising public and professional awareness of the concern for endangered languages.  Each of them should be applauded as pioneering work and groundbreaking.  As a result of these efforts institutes, workshops, and programs have popped up all over the world in an effort to combat language loss.  However, the next step is to bring these organizations to the communities on a local level.  Many of the current programs are often economically prohibitive or are at great distances from the communities that need them; in fact, most of these are in the U.S.  These institutes need to ‘go on the road’ and find a way to bring the information to the local communities.  I recognize that this will require money, training, and other resources, but to act consciously this is a necessity.  

$17.      Spheres of language use (stable bilingualism).  For most languages it is not feasible to assume that they will become a dominant language on the national stage - despite the dreams of some community members.  However, speakers of every language can be educated about the unique value of any individual language.  Helping to create atmospheres of stable bilingualism – where each language has a specific social function – is part of this education.  Stable bilingualism allows community members to indicate where the national language will be spoken and where the local language(s) will be spoken.  The exact manner of the division between the spheres for each language is unimportant; it is the idea that a local language must be used (and is as useful as the national language) that is essential.

$18.      Literacy.  For many endangered language communities, literacy is a future goal for the youngest generations.  Often there are no literacy aids or tools in the local language, and people, consequently, switch to a different language in order to participate in the benefits of literacy.  Increasing literacy in a community’s native language should be a fundamental target for all individuals and communities (despite their age or socioeconomic position).

$19.      Trained interpreters and Translators.  In some regards trained interpreters in the community language are highly valuable and important.  If each language is to be allowed to have a unique sphere of use, there will exist an obvious need for interpreters and translators in a number of arenas.  While in some countries such training may be the responsibility of the national government, in others it is not.  Community involvement and initiation, however, is always necessary to make this is a sustainable goal.      

Talking about action is not action.  Many of the actions suggested in this paper are dependent on the brain work of linguistic analysis, debate, and intelligent discussion.  However, talking doesn’t preserve languages, only doing something about the problem will.  In fact, in the end it is not important what is done, as nobody has the complete guide to saving languages; just do something.  Language loss is a difficult issue.  There are social, cultural, and political factors that affect the longevity of a language’s use.  However, these issues can all be overcome, if those involved act

I am sure other individuals might add to this list of necessary actions.  There are, for example, a number of “extra-linguistic” areas where an individual can be active in language conservation.  For example, political lobbying and linguistic activism help the social and political policies of the world’s nations to improve, which can be used to help the speakers of minority languages throughout the world.  There is plenty to do, and it is not difficult to be engaged.  Really the only question that remains is when do we start?



[i] This is of course a very broad statement.  Latin and Hebrew (and Classical Greek) were all what we would call severely endangered, moribund or extinct.  However, scholars at this time felt knowledge of ‘proper’ usage was more important than actually having any of these languages as a first language.  The concern was that knowledge, and perfection in language itself, would be lost unless the proper usage of these languages were preserved.  Centuries of school children have felt the importance of this concern.     

[ii] The word ‘endangered’ is one that I have never been completely comfortable with.  On the one hand many native communities object to the description while on the other it paints an inaccurate picture of language.  That is, for endangered biological species we can preserve them by placing them in special reserves, and while this is possible for languages in one sense, in the most immediate sense it is not.  However, because of the social atmosphere of the time, the adjective ‘endangered’ does have the benefit of immediately indicating the severity of the problem. 

[iii] My intention is in no way to throw negative light on the linguists who are actively engaged in language preservation.  However, these linguists are a minority, and unfortunately, students of the next generation of linguists have a difficult time gaining access to these dedicated individuals.  So, if you, the reader, are acting, good job; teach others to do the same thing.  If you, the reader, are not acting this article is especially geared toward you.  

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