LISA KIRBY considers whether we should be concerned by language death

Imagine a world where no matter what corner of the globe a person travels to, they would be able to communicate with the natives in a tongue that is familiar to both of them. No more raised voices, as if by shouting you will miraculously become legible. No more quickly checking through your phrase book to find the word that you need, only to have the person opposite looking at you with a blank expression.

As English is spoken in all corners of the world, perhaps it is inevitable that as more and more people choose to speak this global language, they will turn their backs on their native tongue in favour of this ‘superior’ language. After all, English is already the official lingua franca of commerce, air traffic control and science. In fact, it could be argued that any individual in the world who does not have a grasp of the English language is at a significant disadvantage if they want to make an impact in this era of globalisation.

The number of languages dying out around the world is increasing at a considerable pace. David Crystal (2000), estimates that this is happening at a rate of one language being lost at least once every two weeks. For him this is akin to an ecological disaster and something that should concern not just linguists but governments and world leaders too. He is not alone in despairing at the impact the loss of these languages is having on the world. During the 2008 conference held in Ostrava in the Czech Republic titled Globalisation and its impacts on localities, Miroslav Černý ‘discussed the importance of languages for preserving the identity and integrity of nations in multiethnic regions’ (Černý, 2010, 51).

In spite of all these concerns, I can’t help feeling that all this anxiety regarding language loss is more concerned with the language itself, rather than the people who speak it. If an individual chooses to speak in a language that is not the language of their birth, surely we should respect their choice? Whilst it may have been common practice to punish people for speaking their native language in lands where colonialisation took place in previous centuries, this is now a practice which is virtually unheard of (Černý, 2010).  The fact that a person either no longer speaks a particular language or chooses not to pass it on to their children is surely a choice taken because they no longer see the value in that language.

As Kenan Malik (2000) points out, the whole purpose of language is to enable communication. If a language is no longer spoken by enough people to render it viable, if its native speakers no longer see the value in keeping it alive, who are we to insist that they should continue to use it?

LISA KIRBY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Černý, M. (2010) Language Death versus Language Survival: A Global Perspective. In. Beyond Globalisation: Exploring the Limits of Globalisation in the Regional Context (conference proceedings), 51-56. Ostrava: University of Ostrava Czech Republic, 2010. retrieved 12.1.13 from: http://conference.osu.eu/globalization/publ/06-cerny.pdf

Crystal, D. (2000) Language Death. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Malik, K. 2000. Let them die in peace. Retrieved 12.1.13 from: http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/die.html

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2 thoughts on “LISA KIRBY considers whether we should be concerned by language death

  1. Heather says:

    I agree with your point that If an individual chooses to speak in a language that is not the language of their birth we should respect their choice but feel that it is essential for the survival of their culture, and therefore identity, to use their native language alongside that of the chosen other. Hindu’s in Britain are a classic example of this, as they engage with British speakers in English whilst maintaining their own language in their homes and in their places of worship. Without their language, their religion, in my opinion, would lose some of its richness and intrigue, it could also hinder the relations between those Hindu’s who live in England and abroad, as if Hindi was lost and they wished to speak to someone with no common tongue, then how would information and experiences be shared? True if the same alternate language was shared then this wouldn’t be a problem, but giving one language that power would take years to decide and could cause rifts between countries and societies that disagree with the end result.
    Also, Our language is a mash up of many other languages and has evolved over hundreds of years; this wouldn’t have happened without other languages existing. If languages start to die then it won’t have any immediate noticeable effects on the ‘main’ languages of this age, however in a hundred years or so there will be little development, new words will be created without the richness or quality of other language’s input. Without French or Latin we wouldn’t have the ‘Q’, Imagine English without the Q! Language’s Develop and evolve together, they have done for as long as languages have existed. Language is what separates us from other intelligent life on this planet and changing the natural way it works surely is a step towards the devolution of humans as a superior race rather than development?
    – Heather Bingley

  2. Ali says:

    I completely agree with Lisa’s comments about the use of a Lingua Franca being an almost inevitable concept, and at the moment it would seem that English is a likely candidate. It cannot be disputed that communication via the Internet has increased the desirability of using a Lingua Franca. We still live in a world where knowledge is power. I also agree with Heather’s comments about how richness and intrigue can be lost if languages deteriorate. However, my issue arises in the irony that comes from Linguists such as Crystal who arguably would be less successful if they did not write the majority of their work in English. Achebe talks extensively about the benefits or writing in English and how it is beneficial to a culture in ‘From Language to Literature’ yet thinks someone should continue to write in his mother-tongue as some kind of nostalgic appeal. I find it hard to comprehend how people can find it beneficial to promote continuation of a language that is spoken by tiny minorities, if even the people who speak it natively choose against it. As Briton’s we look back on our language throughout history, much of which has almost become unreadable without extensive study. With that in mind surely the change of language needs to be consider as natural. Languages are not dying out, they are evolving.

    – Ali Humphreys

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