Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Mind your language: saving dying languages and cultures of the world

The scripts of the world. Many scripts can be found in Asia. The less scripts you can see the dominance of Latin alphabet. The photo above is by SIL Institute. The SIL publishes dictionaries on critical languages and its ambiguous project is on creating a database of non Roman/Latin scripts for translation and publication.


There are 6,000 languages in the world today. Nearly every region and most countries on the six continents have more than two languages that are spoken on a daily basis. From indigenous to regional languages, speech and communications continues to be diverse. Earth is a living tower of Babel.  Language conservationists and UNESCO have long celebrated both the dominating and small languages of the world for its insights into health and well being, cultures, arts, knowledge and memory that is vital for a people's survival and ability to cope with a rapidly changing world. Sadly, the conservationists warn that half of the 6,000 languages will disappear or become extinct by the end of this century. There are multiple reasons for languages to die off over time. Lack of native speakers and second language speakers, lack of interest from the community, lack of technological and educational resources to preserve the endangered language. There are currently 600 languages endangered of disappearing. Many of them are indigenous and regional languages spread out across the world. Its not just the spoken languages that are loosing, it is the unique scripts of the world.

Globalization and languages

Many people have praised globalization and technology for bringing the world closer together and able to easily communicate with one another on an hourly basis. At the same time, many language and cultural preservers, human rights and academics have also criticized globalization and spread of English as the dominate lingua franca for pushing smaller languages to the abyss. English is not only regarded as a lingua franca but as the universal language across the Global South and North as the easiest way for the 7 billion people of the world to do business, trade, to communicate and avoid misunderstanding. English is taught across the world from Beijing to Lagos to Buenos and even in Greenland. Since the British Empire's spread of the English language and culture across the world alongside other European colonialism and linguistic imperialism, many countries have gone to great lengths to preserve their local languages and scripts from extinction and from being totally replaced with English. Remember not everyone in the world speaks English as a first language. Some people speak it as a third or fourth language. When colonial era ended in South Asia, countries such as Malaysia, India, Vietnam and Cambodia made a huge effort through government initiatives and language academies to make their native languages (one of major languages spoken by the majority of the people) as the unifying, official and protected languages. After the Soviet Union collapse, Central Asia also implemented language policies to revive their languages from second status under Russian during Soviet rule to a national level.

Learn to read Yoruba alphabet and accents


Nigerian Drama Movie in Yoruba



In a majority of Africa it was the exact opposite. Instead of promoting ancient languages and scripts that have survived cultural shifts, waves of linguistic exchange and destruction and colonial period, European languages mainly English, French and Portuguese are viewed by African governments as the languages of necessity and that the public should learn to better their chances in maneuvering in the global economy. Mandarin is also popular as the new global language. China would fight to the end to protect it. Never mind the fact that many Africans across the continent speak their local and regional languages more than French or English. There is an African Academy of languages who is campaigning to preserve and protect African languages and scripts from linguistic death. Many African languages like any other indigenous and regional languages have been pushed to the wayside as the language of instruction from primary to university. Coincidentally, Nollywood movies and many local TV series from Senegal and Ghana are being produced in Yoruba, Hausa, Wolof. Not all African countries have made European languages the focal point of education and of media. South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique protected their respective languages, promoted protection of African languages and the need for the people to help keep the cultural memory, scripts and identity alive through the mother tongues. Linguistic imperialism hit many indigenous peoples the hardest. The Inuit, First nations and Aboriginal Australians had their languages and culture literally taken and in some cases beaten out of them through colonial mission schools aiming to turn indigenous ways of life and identity into a European copy. Everywhere Europeans sought to impose their cultural and linguistic well on indigenous and local peoples they fought back. Not just with guns and revolutions but with languages and religion. The indigenous language of New Zealand, Moari has been protected, is both an official and spoken language across the small island alongside English. Cultural knowledge has entirely died out in Aboriginal Australia, in Inuit society or among the First Nations. The young generation of Inuit and First Nations and Aboriginal are being reminded of the importance of never loosing their culture, knowledge, identity and memory through learning and passing on their ancestral tongues.

Living Languages: Australia, Aboriginal Peoples


Indigenous language revival in Mexico


Language revivals and technologies

Fighting to save a dying language is not just done by academics and preservers. Technology is aiding in making certain that the endangered languages are allowed a chance to live even if the native speakers are gone. Online dictionaries, translation tools, and language websites are helping to preserve and create a database of oral and ancient languages from indigenous speakers to regional languages such as Tamazigh, Catala and Chichewa in Malawi. Tamazigh language or Berber is an official language of Morocco and is taught in schools. Languages such as Yoruba, Hausa and Wolof have millions of speakers but is not offered as languages of instructions due to the numerous languages in Senegal and Nigeria. Instead a unifying language usually a colonial language is used to communicate. However, the local languages are used in movies and tv series and can be found online. There are formerly dead languages that have been revived from a collective effort of society. The Hebrew language revival in the late 19th century is seen as a language miracle. Hebrew went from being an official dead language only used for the Torah and having no native speakers or modern usage to becoming the official language of a country Israel. Yiddish, Hebrew's brother has managed to survive both smaller numbers of speakers, Zionist policy elevating Hebrew over Yiddish, the Holocaust and assimilation of Orthodox Ashkenazim Jews into American society. The Welsh and Cornish languages also went through a similar revivals and are the official languages in Wales and Cornwall. Irish Gaelic also came back from being a near dead language. The Coptic language in Egypt is seen as a descendant of Ancient Egyptian is in a similar fate that Hebrew was in late 19th century. Coptic is only used in Coptic Christian churches for religious services. That hasn't stopped Copts from trying to use it as living and modern language.

Coptic Language Lesson: How to write and read it



PS: Aramaic is one ancient language that has clung onto life and culture for over 6,000 years. A new form of it exists called Neo-Aramaic or Syriac spoken in isolated villages in Syria and by Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq. Syriac Christians have been going to great lengths to preserve Syriac or Neo Aramaic. It was once the language of the wider Levant, Persian Gulf and even Yemen until it was pushed aside by Arabic in the 7th century. Pan Arab nationalism marginalized Aramaic in Syria and Iraq with the Assyrians. The continual wars in Syria and Iraq has raised fears that Aramaic, the ultimate survivor of empires will die out in its own homelands taking its cultural knowledge and memory with it to new lands or go with the older speakers.  

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