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Endangered Languages of The World and How Can They Be Preserved

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Words: 1822 |

Pages: 4|

10 min read

Published: Jan 4, 2019

Words: 1822|Pages: 4|10 min read

Published: Jan 4, 2019

There are thousands of languages in the world, each one adding to our linguistic diversity. However, many of the languages are in danger of extinction. These languages belong to indigenous people who, in recent decades, have been transitioning towards more mainstream, metropolitan languages. Linguists have the responsibility to study endangered languages to preserve the overall linguistic diversity in the world. We serve to benefit by studying every language because they increase the diversity of syntax and semantics that are available to us. The more linguistic diversity, the better we can describe our surroundings, the better we can understand the world around us. However, while linguists do have the responsibility to study these languages, they do not have the obligation to ensure the survival of all endangered languages. The extinction of languages is part of a natural process within the communities that speak them. Linguists should let languages come and go organically. The responsibility to ensure the survival of a language lies with the people who speak the language. The language is a piece of their culture, and therefore belongs to them just like as any other piece of culture. Thus, they have the right to do with it what they’d like. It is paternalistic in nature for someone to demand that a language be saved. That notion implies that the people allowing the language die do not know what is best for them, and it is our responsibility to protect them by saving this language. People have the right to decide whether or not to pass down pieces of their culture and will do what is in the best interest for their people. Following an examination of the two opposing sides of this issue, I will argue that it is a dangerous assumption for linguists to assume the responsibility of saving these languages. Furthermore, I will provide an example of how to better combat the problem of losing linguistic diversity

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In the article “On Endangered Languages” linguist Ken Hale explains why he firmly believes it is the responsibility of linguists and anthropologists to prevent endangered languages from dying. Hale discusses how losing languages contributes to the loss of cultural and intellectual diversity (Hale, 349). He compares the loss of a language to the loss of an animal or plant species in terms of losing biological diversity.

While his intentions are good, his ideas are misguided. Hale asserts that every single language contributes to linguistic diversity. Thus Hale believes it is a catastrophe when any given language dies. According to Hale, the greater the variety of linguistics available in the world, the better we are able to describe and therefore understand our surroundings. Consequently, the loss of any endangered language detrimental to our growth as a species. I will concede that Hale’s argument is valid. However, to make the assumption that it is our responsibility to lobby against the loss of any given language is extremely paternalistic. By making that assumption, Hale has put himself and other linguists atop a pedestal. By stating that it is the linguists’ responsibility to uphold the language Hale is demeaning the intellect of the speakers of the language themselves. In Hale’s argument, there is an inherent implication that the native speakers of the language are incapable of the responsibility of maintaining and passing down their language. While it is unlikely this was Hale’s intention, this type of thinking is nonetheless morally wrong. The responsibility to maintain a language rests in the hands of those who speak it. To think or say otherwise is to be guilty of elitism as well ethnocentrism. Hale fails to consider two main issues. The first is that some people wish to part with their given language. This is a decision that they make and are capable of making, and it is their right to do so. The second, is that the loss of any given endangered language is not as catastrophic to the world’s overall linguistic diversity as Hale would have us believe.

Peter Ladefoged is another linguist who provided a prudent counter argument towards Hale’s article. Ladefoged believes that we do not need to worry about saving languages. He believes that in some cases the loss of a language can actually be a positive occurrence. Despite it resulting in a slight loss in linguistic diversity, there can be positive outcomes. For example: the idea of language as a unifier. A single, more widely known language can unify an area with many divided communities. Two communities with a language barrier separating one another are much less likely to coexist peaceably. Breaking down this barrier can lead to the unification of communities that might have otherwise been at odds with one another.

Another point that Ladefoged makes is that language is not all that matters when talking about diversity. He gives us an example to explain his reasoning for this statement. “Consider two groups of Bushmen, the Zhuloasi and !Xoo, who speak mutually unintelligible languages belonging to different subgroups of the khoisan family, but otherwise behave in similar ways.” (Ladefoged, 1992). These groups act in very similar ways but speak different languages. How diverse are they actually? What would we stand to lose if they converted to speaking one language? Perhaps linguistic diversity is not the most important factor that we should concern ourselves with.

Finally, and most importantly: it is wrong for a linguist to assume he knows better than the people in the community whose language is endangered. Their language will survive if they choose to pass it on. However, if they do not choose to do so, it is often a difficult but nonetheless calculated decision. Ladefoged again provides an excellent example of this. When speaking of the Toda, a Community in the Nilgiri Hills of Southern India (Ladefoged, 1992) he explains that “Many of the younger people want to honor their ancestors, but also to be part of a modern India.” Without adopting a new language, it would be difficult for them to do this. Adopting a new, more widely known language provides them with opportunities that were not previously available to them. In this case, the decision was to discontinue the use of their native tongue as a means of acculturating to a metropolitan area and adopting a more widely available language. This is a decision that every person has a right to. If a child grows up in a metropolitan area, this may mean that the language is not passed to the next generation. If this is the case, it is unfortunate that a small piece of our linguistic diversity is put at risk. However, it is more important that these families were given the right to decide what was best for themselves.

The previous paragraph touches upon the broader and perhaps underlying issue of paternalism in Hale’s argument. For centuries, western culture has promoted this ideal of superiority. Communities outside of the western way of life have been viewed as different, and therefore less worthy of basic human rights. This has lead to gross and horrifying mistreatment of fellow human beings throughout history. It is extremely dangerous for any culture to assume it knows what is best for another.. We need to work towards exterminating ethnocentric thinking in the West. This type of thinking has resulted in travesties such as slavery, torture, and displacement of entire communities. A linguist pushing for the retention of language may believe he or she is helping the community of the speakers. It is entirely possible that he is doing the opposite. The following thought-experiment will further illustrate this point. Hale has approached this problem with an etic perspective. In other words, he is an outsider looking in. He is assessing their community from the perspective of a Westerner. When he sees a community with a unique language on the verge of extinction, he decides that this group needs his help to preserve the language. Without his help, they will surely lose it. He thinks that modern and metropolitan are forcing these people to assimilate and that they are incapable of maintaining their language on their own. As a solution, he calls for legislation that will prevent these languages from dying. From an etic perspective, this seems to make sense. After all, language is an extremely central part of any person’s identity. There are cases in which people are forced to abandon their language and it is extremely tragic. The movie “Our Spirits Don’t Speak English” can serve as an example of this. The film details the experiences of Native Americans forced into assimilation schools and stripped of the fundamental elements of their identity such as the rituals and language that they once knew. We must keep in mind that this is not the case for every endangered language. The native americans in the movie were sent to these assimilation schools because the colonial powers believed that they were helping these natives. They were in fact alienating these young people and scarring them for the rest of their lives. Studying an endangered language scenario unfold from the perspective of a speaker might tell a different story. .An emic perspective might be entirely different than the situation Hale assumes. Someone belonging to small tribe, speaking a very specific language may have never had the opportunity to go to school or get a job in a metropolitan area because of their inability to communicate. Perhaps for the first time, their children have the ability to learn a more practical language that would allow them to fulfill these dreams. Perspective is key in any anthropological study. We must allow people to make their own decisions, and trust that they are capable of doing so.

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The most pragmatic way to approach the issue of endangered languages, is to allow for the speakers to make their own decisions. The most serious and egregious crimes against humanity have come from paternalistic thinking. Many tragedies have began from one group believing it is superior to another. Promoting equality across all communities trumps the need for linguistic diversity. Rather than pushing for laws and demanding for languages to be maintained, the linguists should understand their role as passive observers and scholars. When possible, they absolutely should make an effort to learn endangered languages, record and understand them. In this way, they have the ability to keep the languages alive in their own right. But as for the native speakers of any given endangered language, it is their right and only their decision as to whether or not they wish to pass on their language. Whether it be through their children, or aiding linguists in learning the language, they have the right to do with it what they choose. While we should make an effort to promote linguistic diversity, we must respect a person’s right to pursue whatever dreams he or she may have. Sometimes, these dreams do not include passing on their native tongue.

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Endangered Languages Of the World and How Can They Be Preserved. (2019, January 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/endangered-languages-of-the-world-and-how-can-they-be-preserved/
“Endangered Languages Of the World and How Can They Be Preserved.” GradesFixer, 03 Jan. 2019, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/endangered-languages-of-the-world-and-how-can-they-be-preserved/
Endangered Languages Of the World and How Can They Be Preserved. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/endangered-languages-of-the-world-and-how-can-they-be-preserved/> [Accessed 26 May 2024].
Endangered Languages Of the World and How Can They Be Preserved [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Jan 03 [cited 2024 May 26]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/endangered-languages-of-the-world-and-how-can-they-be-preserved/
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