language planning and policy
Did you know this was endangered languages week? I didn’t, but I’m glad it’s happening. With all the alarming news that has hogged the headlines over the past few months, endangered languages have sunk to a lower rung of our consciousness, mine anyway. So it’s time to stop and think for a moment about the many benefits of preserving endangered languages:
1. Every language embodies a system of family and governmental relationships, titles, and rules. Nobody has gotten either system right yet, and we can learn a lot from each other. These systems disappear with the language.
2. Every language uses a certain set of sounds, which express themselves in everything from lullabies to swear words. These help us understand the human brain, and our physical capabilities.
3. Can you imagine a world in which there was no longer a ”Rock-a-Bye Baby,” or an “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” not to mention, “To be or not to be” which other people could understand? Literature and music has been composed in every tongue, whether the culture is literate or not.
4. More than one set of experiments has proven that knowing more than one language improves our method of learning everything else as well, and develops the brain.
5. Extinguishing language means extinguishing identity, relegating certain groups to inferior status. This goes against our principles of self-worth and democracy.
6. Now. If only the Spanish-, Greek-, and French-speaking people I know would answer me in Spanish, Greek, or French when I address them in their native tongue. The United States not only does not foster multilingualism, it mutes the tongues of people who immigrate. It annoys the hell out of me that I cannot practice my second, third, and fourth languages with people who live around me. The less they respond in their native tongue, the less I hear their native languages, and the quicker I lose contact with them.
7. We embrace diversity in all else, why not in language? There is a virtue unto itself of diversity.
Endangered Languages Week 2013 – Here is a weeklong celebration of same in England, if any of you happen through this week.
Celebrating our Sounds, Signs and Songs
SOAS, Russell Square, London
20-28 May 2013
Endangered Languages Week 2013 will present a variety of workshops, talks, films, demonstrations, debate, and more. Events include:
- ELDP workshop on technology and African languages.
- APLL6 conference on Austronesian and Papuan Languages and Linguistics
- Talks and seminars:
- Caroline Kerfoot: ‘Multilingualism as epistemic resource: rethinking ‘languages’ in educational policy’
- Kearsey Cormier on Sign languages
- Henrik Bergqvist:‘The problem of accounting for TAME and related expressions in the context of language documentation and description’
- Catherine Ingram on music and language documentation
- Sarah Ogilvie on web technologies and endangered languages
- Peter Austin: ‘And still they speak Dieri. Language revitalisation in northern South Australia’
- ELAR Open Day, including:
- Film Day: films on/in endangered languages
The full programme of events will appear here soon!
All events are free of charge and open to anyone who is interested in languages.
I am copying into this blogpost an email which appeared on the Language Policy List firstname.lastname@example.org about the ancient languages of the Caucasus Mountains. I have edited out some parts of it which were technical, in order to make it a tidy size for a blog post, and to make it accessible to non-specialists. The title of the original posting is “New Book: A Proposal for Pan-Caucasian Alphabet,” posted on March 24th.
[Several of the languages of Northern Caucasian languages were not traditionally written down.] Standardized writing systems for the North Caucasian languages have been implemented only in the 20th century. Initially based upon the Latin script, the adapted alphabets have been shifted to Cyrillic-shaped graphics during the mid 30s. … These writing systems are incapable to represent [sic], in an unambiguous way, the phonetics of the North Caucasian languages, which in their turn possess an outstanding feature of having one of the richest consonant inventories among all the languages of the world….
For instance, the language of the Ubykhs (extinct since 1992) has 86 consonants and two vowels; the Archi language, presently reduced to 1200 speakers, distinguishes 81 consonants and 26 vowels (many of the former do not have exact correspondences in other languages); the consonant inventory of the Bzyp dialect of Abkhaz includes 68 phonemes, etc.
All Caucasian languages have a regular three-level phonation for stops and affricates (voiced, ejective and aspirated voiceless), whereas the Cyrillic script distinguishes only two levels of phonation (voiced and unaspirated voiceless) in case of stops and one (aspirated voiceless) in case of affricates. The Latin alphabet does not represent affricates at all. … [T]he Cyrillic script until the 20th century has chiefly been confined to a limited range of a few Slavic languages sharing similar phonetic traits. … [D]issimilar sets of symbols often with illogical combinations were introduced into the alphabets of particular North Caucasian languages during the adaptation of the Russian script.
For instance, the series of Ubykh postalveolar affricates and fricatives numbers 22 distinct phonemes, for which there is only one (!) correspondence in the Cyrillic script – the letter ч (tɕ). Obviously, this one sign alone is quite insufficient to express the overall phonemic diversity of this extensive series by means of Cyrillic graphics. Set aside the letter х, there is no other direct or indirect graphical correspondence for uvular, pharyngeal, epiglottal and glottal stops, affricates, fricatives and sonorants, which in Caucasian languages abound.
As one can see, the quantity of phonemes of these languages by far exceeds the graphical capabilities of all alphabetic systems that have previously been proposed for them or are currently in use. Such a vast phoneme inventory significantly hinders the possibilities of adaptation of any actual script and constitutes the prime reason for the current project.
[Twenty-four[ out of 69 characters of Adyghe alphabet are double, and 11 – triple, making in sum 35 compounds, which is more than half of the total listing with 69:35 ratio. The similar statistics of the other Caucasian Cyrillic alphabets is as follows: Abaza (74:40), Kabardian (55:25), Abkhaz (64:24), Akhvakh (56:30), Aghul (69:32), Avar (53:37), Lak (59:25), Tabasaran (59:25), Tsez (40:14), Chechen (45:16) etc. The Chechen alphabet alone having merely 45 characters in the presence of 44 authentic vowels and diphthongs in the language itself, clearly convinces one in the fact that even at the cost of universal violation of the alphabetic principle and inappropriate complication of orthography, the given alphabets are unable to express the phonemic structure of the Caucasian languages even in the least satisfactory manner.
All above-mentioned complications essentially limited the means of graphical expression of these languages and led to a point, where, set aside rare dialectal phonemes, a series of sounds of literary languages were omitted in a number of alphabets. In many cases, these very same circumstances also defined the selection of dialects upon which the literary versions of some Caucasian languages were subsequently based: neither the extent of geographical distribution, nor the greater number of speakers was the decision criterion, but the minimal consonant inventory.
In summary, we may conclude that presently for the languages of both North Caucasian families there are practically no alphabets with a satisfactory level of phonematicity. Moreover, in Cyrillic script we deal with a quite inconsistent system of symbols, the potential of which in respect of grapheme morphology and structural correspondences is extremely low and insufficient not only for a simple, practical and phonemically complete rendition of the North Caucasian languages, but also for their aesthetic graphical representation.
The latter is of paramount importance for psychology of writing and determines the representativeness and competitiveness of an authentic language under the dominance of another – an official language with an identical writing system.
Besides the imperfection of the writing system or even its absence, the official status and the cultural dominance of Russian has a no less considerable impact on the marginalization of the spheres of usage of the native Caucasian languages, promoting their gradual extinction. A large number of languages, among which were examples unique by their grammatical and phonetic properties, either completely died out or are on the brink of extinction being reduced to a few hundred or thousand of speakers, such as Archi, Akhvakh, Khinalug, Khwarshi, Tsez, Hinukh, Hunzib, Bezhta, Ghodoberi, Kryts, Budukh, Udi and many others.
Granting these languages a new impetus and means for development may be a possible break through the mentioned difficulties. To achieve this goal we suggest a scientifically valid development of completely new and well-adapted Caucasian alphabets that are adjusted by the morphology of symbols and the logic of their modification. At the same time, they must correspond to the complex intrinsic phonetic features of these languages, render them with full phonemic representativeness and alphabetical unambiguity, and at the same time be free from any irrelevant political or cultural context and enforcing influence.
The best illustrations to the aforesaid are the 1600-year time-tested alphabets of once dominant languages of the South Caucasus and the Armenian Highlands – Armenian, Georgian and the extinct and only recently deciphered Caucasian Albanian. Among the writing systems of the world, these three alphabets are distinguished by their highest level of grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence and are listed among the phonetically most perfect. Caucasian Albanian, inter alia, was the only language of the South Caucasus possessing phonetic features similar to the North Caucasian languages and an ancient alphabet adapted to it.
Throughout the centuries, the viability of the Armenian and Georgian alphabets, alongside with the power of tradition and some peculiarities of the identity of these two nations, was supported by the fundamental fact: they reflect the phonetics of these languages with the highest level of perfection. These alphabets were never superseded by the Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Russian or Latin scripts, as they weren't adopted or modified, but from the beginning developed on the basis of a meticulous scientific analysis of the phonetics of Armenian and Georgian (as well as Caucasian Albanian).
Hence, we set forth the idea to introduce completely original, easily legible, and most importantly – phonetically perfect and grammatologically thorough writing systems for the North Caucasian linguistic area, based on the character forms and graphical principles of construction of the alphabets of geographically adjacent and historically akin South Caucasus.
To achieve maximum efficiency, two similar, but mutually independent generalized sets of characters for [the] language families are introduced, wherefrom the specific alphabets for the particular languages are subsequently deduced.
Additionally, for the Ossetic language alike, which is an integral part of the Caucasian heritage, an independent alphabet sharing the features of both the newly developed North Caucasian and the ancient Transcaucasian alphabets has been created.
Thus, we attempt to give a new and historically sound unity and continuity to the millennial writing culture of the Caucasian region, a new impulse to the development of greater speech communities, as well as viability for preservation and future revival to smalle
My friend Pamela Satran has a delightful blog called Nameberry which is a treasure trove about peoples’ first names, in American culture. As illustrated below, it would be of limited use elsewhere.
When my children were born, their father didn’t want any of the usual names and, since he was Australian, went searching in an aboriginal dictionary for inspiration. My son’s name is a variation on an aboriginal word for “fire” and my daughter’s name means “traveler.” You can make up a child’s name in America (the kids were born in America – it would be interesting to know what they thought in Australia) without being considered strange.
People in Iceland don’t have the same free-wheeling attitude. Here’s the Icelandic point of view, as expressed in a recent news release:
A 15-year-old Icelandic girl has won the right to use the name given her by her mother, after a court battle against the authorities.
Blaer Bjarkardottir will now be able to use her first name, which means “light breeze”, officially.
Icelandic authorities had objected, saying it was not a proper feminine name.
The country has very strict laws on names which must fit Icelandic grammar and pronunciation rules”.
My former Chinese students tried to instruct me regarding Chinese first names, which come last. The first name, linearly, is the family name. Wang Zixiang’s “first name” is Zixiang. His family name is Wang. His sister (if Chinese children had sisters) might be named Wang Xiaobin.
This was just the beginning of their attempts to explain their names to me. Each family names their child for a hope they have for it; like “learned scholar” or “much gold.” Chinese words are made up of many layers, and name words are no exception. Without further study of Chinese, I cannot claim to understand the interaction of the layers.
The North Koreans obviously have some variation on the same protocols, because the recent grandfather-son-grandson trio of rulers have been named Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jung-un, with the family name coming first.
I ran across men named Lovemore and Givemore in Zimbabwe, and the name of the president of one African country is Goodluck. Givemore hinted that his name came from “Christianity.” These are names in English, but there are no English prime ministers or American presidents named “Givemore.”
Once again, we see how language is arbitrary, reflecting customs and beliefs of various cultures. The Icelanders feel strongly enough about their cultural choices to have a court case over a girl’s name.
California is pushing many entry-level college courses online. I have so much to say about this that I don’t know where to begin.
I teach writing. The parts of the class which always, always engage the students most vividly are group work, critiquing other students’ papers, individual conferences, and class discussions. Taking those away would dry up students’ brains and hearts, and eviscerate the program. A writing class could, perhaps, meet less frequently, maybe only half the time, but to remove personal contact in a writing course would be unthinkable. (How many unthinkable things have I had to accept recently!)
The article referenced above projects removal of many adjunct professors. The very existence of adjunct professors as the backbone of many academic departments (mine included) is in itself a cost-cutting change. Adjuncts work like donkeys. We are poorly paid, and can only have a limited number of classes at each university, so adjuncts shuffle from school to school, teaching 2-3 classes in each place. I would hate to do the research on how much time these scrambling adjuncts have to spend on each student. Between commuting, attending various workshops and faculty meetings, planning courses presented in different academic systems, correcting papers, and attending class, there is not much time left over. Now they are even cutting out the adjuncts.
But my main point here concerns a workshop I attended last year on formulating online courses. A professor of music was the workshop leader. He made the point that formulating an online course is extremely time consuming, and must be thought through carefully, since there is virtually no student feedback on the quality of assignments and the class organization. You cannot see how the assignments are playing out in real life. You just receive disembodied work from students you never get to know.
After reviewing the class he had so laboriously devised , I said, “Excuse me if you find this offensive, but this is all so easy. There is hardly any challenge to this course at all — I already know most of it myself, and I am just an amateur musician.” The professor gave a sheepish smile and conceded that online courses had to be simplified and made more transparently accessible, because the teacher can never know whether the material is being grasped and internalized or not.
If we, as a nation, want to cut the costs of higher education, then we should find other ways to do it, and I would begin with the egregiously high-priced textbooks. I could so very easily give my class with no textbook, but the students are forced to buy one. All they need is a reference book, such as A Writer’s Reference or The Everyday Writer, where they can seek guidance for grammar, vocabulary, and rhetoric.
Online courses are not for the professor and not for the students — neither group prefers or enjoys them. They are to save the taxpayer some money, and it is up to us, the taxpayers, to determine whether we can afford to so drastically lower the standards of our children’s education.
A good teacher, not a bundle of information, is the student’s lodestar. If we think good teachers are too expensive for our children, we should fold our tents and retire from the world stage.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa has sponsored an English-only bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s a dumb bill with unstated pernicious goals of racism and exclusion, but leave that aside for the moment. Rep. King said, “A common language is the most powerful unifying force known throughout history, throughout all humanity and all time. If (people) can’t communicate, they’re bound to separate.” The people in India, China, many African nations, the Quechua-Spanish nations of South America, Indonesia, and numerous other countries which have multiple languages might disagree on that statement. It is, at the very least, not a statement based on fact. Language differences might sow disunity, as Rep. King is doing in the U.S., but these nations have not been “bound to separate.” (The U.S. came close to separation without any linguistic involvement except perhaps the stigmatizing of peoples’ accents.)
More disturbing than that statement was his use of China as an example of linguistic unity “throughout history.” His report on the history of the “Chinese language” is riddled with the sorts of logical fallacies which result from not knowing what you are talking about. First of all, there is no language called “Chinese.” A person from Beijing cannot easily understand someone from Canton, Taiwan, or even Szechuan. There are also many tribal languages spoken in China. My Chinese friends tell me that the variances between, say, Beijing Mandarin and the languages spoken elsewhere are much greater than the languages of Texas and New York. In America, it is a matter of accent, but the differences are more pervasive in China. Any broad brush analogy between China and America, and ancient China with modern America, is bound to be fallacious. One has to be careful when comparing even England with America.
The Chinese alphabet is indeed a cleverly devised unifying tool unlike anything we have in the Western world. It is perhaps analogous to the sign language which Native America tribes used to communicate, since they could not understand each others’ languages. In our Western alphabets, a person must memorize the words house, casa, maison, spiti, and so on, in order to communicate the idea of “house” or “home.” Two Chinese citizens who cannot understand each other verbally can communicate through the symbol for house. The Google translation for “house” contains multiple entries, but one of them is 名词. A Frenchman and an American can say to each other over and over again “House,” “Maison” “House” “Maison” and never understand each other, but two Chinese can write down 名词 and communicate immediately.
I once asked several Chinese students to come to the board and write the symbols for various words. The rest of the Chinese students in the class enjoyed the display even more than the rest of us. The Taiwanese student used an extra slash or line to write her symbols, and the Beijing student had a different slant or a different interior relationship of strokes. They said in explanation that the Taiwanese student wrote with an “accent.” They could detect where the student was from by analyzing the symbolic depiction of certain concepts. This is an entertainment which no Western student could participate in. Writing “maison” instead of “house” does not provide any laughs at all.
I was amused by Rep. King’s turning to China as a template for the U.S. to follow. There are few Republicans indeed who would use a Communist government which dictates policy, including language policy, as our model.
Our ignorance of things Chinese is so great that politicians can grab onto fragments of truth and include them in their speeches unchallenged, because neither they nor their audiences know what the truth is. I stipulate right here that my knowledge of Chinese is very limited, but compared to Rep. King, I’m an encyclopedia.
So who has the upper hand in the world today? The Chinese or the Americans? I recently met Yen, a young Chinese woman who is beginning high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She will be living with 15 other young Chinese students. (They will soften the transition to the U.S. by employing a Taiwanese chef to cook their meals. It is very difficult for a Chinese person to become accustomed to the American kitchen.) She already speaks good English and, if the family plan is accomplished, will finish both high school and college in the U.S. There are tens of thousands of Chinese students like Yen studying in the U.S. today, and each will take back to China a bit of knowledge to share with their families, acquaintances, and colleagues. We, in the meantime, are entertaining each other with false stories about Chinese history and language, without the slightest clue what China is like.
One of my students once wrote an essay in which she claimed that if we limited the ability of ordinary citizens to purchase guns we would be “just like China.” I had no idea what being “just like China” would entail, so I asked her in what ways they would be similar. “Do you know a lot about China?” I asked her. She sheepishly cast her eyes down. She barely knew where it was. Such foolish bromides about gun control had become second nature in her family and her community (she was home schooled), and had the ring of truth to them. As my father remarked about one family’s annual reunions, “They get together once a year to increase their ignorance.”
We live awash in such ignorance at our peril.
Once again, English Only legislation is being introduced in the U.S. Congress, this time by Rep. Steve King of Iowa. Given the substantial number of serious problems faced by America now, this legislation should be viewed as a frivolous waste of time, but its deleterious effects go deeper than that. It denigrates and demeans the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the U.S., most of whom are struggling to learn English, if for no other reason than that their futures will be much brighter if they do. All of their children learn English, and their grandchildren often don’t even speak the native language of their immigrant parents or grandparents (which is a problem from cultural and national security standpoints).
Let us begin by reviewing some of the provisions of the proposed legislation, which, thankfully, is not expected to pass.
§162. Preserving and enhancing the role of the official language
Representatives of the Federal Government shall have an affirmative obligation to preserve and enhance the role of English as the official language of the Federal Government. Such obligation shall include encouraging greater opportunities for individuals to learn the English language.
Without defining what “encouraging greater opportunities for individuals to learn the English language,” this provision has no meaning at all. The Federal Government already functions in English and no enhancement is needed. But “encouraging greater opportunities” can only mean establishing learning centers where immigrants can learn English, and providing a greater number of ESL teachers in schools. This would be a welcome and expensive addition to the federal budget, but increased funding for any kind of education is rejected by the very people who support English-only laws, so this provision is dead on arrival and not worth the paper it is written on.
§ 164. Uniform English language rule for naturalization
(a) UNIFORM LANGUAGE TESTING STANDARD.—All citizens should be able to read and understand generally the English language text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the laws of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution.
Who could object to learning a bit about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? Certainly not I. It is the principles enshrined in these documents which draw many immigrants to America in the first place. They have heard about equality of opportunity long before they ever tread our shores. But I wonder which parts of the Declaration of Independence would be considered especially important.
The respect paid to immigrants would be welcome. Prevention of immigration is one of the objections to King George’s rule: “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither…”
The final remonstrance (in a long list) against King George might seem, to the untutored immigrant, to clash with the basic declaration that “all men are created equal”: He has…endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. Would we then, in fairness, teach our new immigrants about the “undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions” which the U.S. government practiced against these “merciless Indian Savages” over the hundred and more years after we became independent? Who would fund the learning centers where immigrants were taught the archaic language of the Declaration of Independence, with its outdated vocabulary and punctuation?
Regarding the Constitution, we would be bound to alert new immigrants that some provisions of this document no longer apply, such as: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” Surely we would want to tell the new immigrants that this vile provision which resulted in escaped slaves being returned to their masters to endure legally sanctioned measures such as death was overturned later by the Supreme Court. Most damaging to the spirit of all men being “created equal” would be the provision which states: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned … according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” The Constitution tiptoes around the mention of slavery, but in this provision, counts slaves as three-fifths of a person, and does not include Indians at all. It does count indentured servants, who were usually white, as full people. That part, too, was later overturned, ultimately allowing Barack Obama to become president. Who would want three-fifths of a president?
Is this the image of America that we want to paint for new immigrants? Wouldn’t the economic, social, and cultural pressures to learn English lead them to a more accurate picture of modern America, and more facility in navigating such civic duties as voting and holding a job? Our own high school students have only a vague idea of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I wonder how many of them would pass the test given to immigrants.
Linguists almost universally oppose English-Only legislation, joined by many others; for example, the American Psychological Association’s web page contains an article opposing it. The abstract of the article states: “The scientific literature relevant to the arguments for and against the English-only movement is reviewed, to determine whether the Resolution Against English Only before the Board of Directors and the Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association (APA) was supportable. Some of the misconceptions advanced by English-only advocates that affect the sociopsychological, educational, testing, and health-service delivery arenas are examined. It is argued that there is no support for English-only initiatives, and that the English-only movement can have negative consequences on psychosocial development, intergroup relations, academic achievement, and psychometric and health-service delivery systems for many American citizens and residents who are not proficient in English. The public interest is best served by affirming a position in opposition to English-only. English-only is socially divisive and poses a threat to the human welfare that psychologists espouse in the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists.” The full article can be found here.
Services affected by English-Only legislation would include: health, education and social welfare services, job training, translation assistance to crime victims and witnesses in court and administrative proceedings; voting assistance and ballots, drivers’ licensing exams, and AIDS prevention education. The sponsor of the present bill, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, suggests that its passage would alleviate the expense of providing interpreters and translators in hospitals, courts, and schools. Really? Does this mean that a person who does not speak English will not be helped to understand the proceedings in the court where he or she might be convicted of a crime? On the medical side, would a 911 operator or an EMT be allowed to speak in a language other than English? The present legislation specifically requires that entities from the federal government down to the smallest town must comply with federal law, and since local ambulance drivers and telephone operators for 911 are governmental entities, they might well be forbidden to speak anything but English. In the days of segregation, well within living memory, Black people were allowed to die if there was no hospital for Black people handy. That’s how the famous singer Bessie Smith died – she bled to death because the White hospitals wouldn’t take her in. Are we going to allow grotesque modern situations to refresh that memory?
Passage of an “English Only” ordinance by Florida’s Dade County in 1980, barring public funding of activities that involved the use of languages other than English, resulted in the cancellation of all multicultural events and bilingual services, ranging from directional signs in the public transit system to medical services at the county hospital. The absence of bilingual signage would not bode well for the tourism industry.
Librarians complain that English-only laws inhibit their ability to communicate with many of their clients.
The English-Only proponents are opposed to spending money on multi-lingual ballots, thus affecting the voting rights of immigrants. One Representative who urged the House of Representatives to reject the English-only measure wondered how we could enforce immigration laws if we were forbidden from communicating with the affected immigrants.
Learning English is a long process, especially for people with limited educational experience. They may be working at multiple jobs to support themselves or taking care of young children or other relatives. It could take them years to master the Constitution. A little patience should be in order while they acclimate themselves to a new country.
Some states have declared English their “official language,” but Hawaii has deemed both English and Hawaaian “official.” Will that now have to be overturned?
The English-only forces include a fringe of racists belonging to hate groups, and underlying all such legislation is a smug intolerance, at the very least. America would benefit more fully from initiatives in the other direction. How foolish, for example, that we had a severe shortage of Arabic-speaking citizens when we went to war in Iraq! It is the smug superiority of Americans such as Rep. King which created generations of Americans who do not speak the language of their immigrant parents or grandparents. In today’s interconnected world, we need to encourage multilingualism. It is good for the arts, business, diplomacy, education, and peace. Any efforts to intimidate Americans into speaking only English take us into isolation and dysfunction.
There is a deeper moral principle to be honored though. English as a language is one form of the glue that has always bound us together. This will not change. Relegating the many languages spoken among us to second-class status only causes division and rancor, not the unity which Americans since the Declaration of Independence have striven for. Immigrants come to America to live where the goal is equality of opportunity, and where that is concerned, we have walked the walk. We have had a Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who speaks English with a German accent, and a recent Chief of Staff of our Armed Forces, John Shalikashvili, spoke English with a Polish accent. We revere Lafayette and deTocqueville, who spoke English with a French accent, as American heroes, and the list of artists, writers, film makers, and musicians who took a while to become fluent in English is a very long one. These American giants all took a while to learn English, and they might have had mothers or other relatives who came to live here who never learned English at all. We don’t want to discourage the scientists who will take us to Mars or the musicians who lift our hearts to be discouraged from coming to our country because we don’t value their language. Bring on the bagels (Yiddish), ketchup (Chinese), chipmunks (Algonquin), soufflés (French), and all the rest! Hooray for America!
An article in the Arts section of The New York Times this morning, “How Do You Say ‘Disagreement’ in the Pirahã tongue?” points up the gulf between the soft science of Linguistics and ordinary mortals. Since there is no whiff of this science discernible in high school courses (at least in the U.S.), students do not know its basic principles. As a professor of freshman writing courses at a university, I know that terms used in the article, such as “universal grammar” and “recursion,” would meet with blank stares.
“Universal grammar” refers to the concept, first used by Noam Chomsky, that certain elements of language are genetically programmed. All human languages therefore have certain things in common (among them, “recursion”). While observing language usage, Chomsky had noted certain facts. Young children learn their native language so quickly that there must be something beyond normal learning channels at work. When we learn other languages later in life the pace is much slower. Chomsky noticed that children do not learn by imitation, as they hear all sorts of ungrammatical speech, including baby talk, yet still master grammatical forms. Even people with severe mental challenges can speak grammatically, though they may be unable to master other advanced knowledge. Chomsky became convinced that we, like blue birds who sing in bluebird instinctively, are somehow programmed to learn language.
“Recursion” is the proces of embedding one sentence within another by using clauses and other phrases. In his book, The Unfolding of Language, author Guy Deutscher gives an example of multiple recursions, “The lion running after the fox chasing the rabbit sniffing the dandelion blowing in the wind coming from the east.”
This morning’s article deals with a controversy about whether the Pirahã language spoken in Brazil is a language without recursion. One researcher claims it is, and if so, it would undermine the universality of grammar and therefore undermine the status of Noam Chomsky who, much like Albert Einstein in Physics, stands as the genius in the field.
The linguists are battling in ivory towers. No wonder, as Dr. Ted Gibson, a professor of cognitive science at M.I.T., opined,”Chomskians and non-Chomskians are weirdly illogical at times…It’s like they just don’t want to have a cogent argument. They just want to contradict what the other guy is saying.” The article notes the “strangely calcified state of the recursion debate.” Science kept separate from life will calcify, like arguing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. There is no answer to the “so what?”
If linguistic knowledge were allowed to trickle out of the ivory towers, the linguists might come down to earth, which could benefit them as well. Our students should be learning about linguistics, the same way they learn about quantum physics, Keynesian economics, or the Oedipus Complex, yet they do not. They should know how language is constructed, how meaning is made, and what the role of language is in our daily lives and in our communities. This knowledge will facilitate the acquisition of other languages and, for even mildly assiduous students, improve their ability to express themselves both orally and in writing. It would provide someone for the isolated linguists to talk to, which could make them less weird.
Educators in the U.S. are hesitant to introduce it into our common curriculum for fear that it will rob our students of their creativity and self esteem. What do you think?
An article in The New York Times today makes the case that not only does bilingualism make us smarter as children, it also wards off mental deterioration in older people.
I might add my own two cents on this subject. There is no time in life when bilingualism is anything less than a great bonus (except when memorizing vocabulary lists, that’s just the price you pay). Traveling, watching television, reading newspapers in another language, speaking with the local hardware store owner or taxi driver or musician in his or her native language is a kick which opens your social life and sprinkles glitter on our everyday activities.
Do you know there is an “International Mother Language Day?” It’s today, February 21st. It is sponsored by Linguapax, a non-governmental organization supporting linguistic diversity, in the belief that “…essential vehicles of identity and cultural expression are inseparable from the goals peace and intercultural understanding.”
The Linguapax Award for 2012 is being given to:
“Jon Landaburu Illarramendi (1943), Basque with French and Colombian nationality is a leading specialist in the field of indigenous languages in Colombia. With over 40 years of experience in the field, he has combined professional dedication with personal engagement in his work promoting linguistic diversity and linguistics ecologies in Colombia. He has come to be a key name in their protection and revitalization.”
You can read the whole article here.
Imagine what a Shakespearean era mom would think of the way we speak today. Moms from a couple of hundred years before that would have been appalled at the way Shakespeare spoke. Language is always changing, sometimes slowly, but always inexorably.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that researchers in Canada and Belgium are studying text messages to chart the changing language in that form of communication. I was encouraged to see that the Canadian researchers’ expectations were that their studies would reveal that texters are not illiterate or dumb, but rather creative and innovative. We won’t know until they’ve collected a large enough corpus and studied the data.
See the whole article here.