Friday, October 30, 2009

Vive la différence of languages!

I came across information on this book on PRI's website. So I followed the links and came up with an interesting article at New Scientist. Here's the book info:

Hagège, Claude. 2000. On the Death and Life of Languages. Yale University Press
Price: £20/$30

The article describes the decline of the world's languages with some vivid examples.

Claude Hagège, a professor of linguistics at the Collège de France in Paris, has studied this decline for more than three decades. ... Hagège has no doubt that linguistic imperialism is largely responsible for the problem: "The death threat that weighs upon languages today takes the guise of English," he concludes glumly. "And I wager that the wisest anglophones would not, in fact, wish for a world with only one language." Source

The work, however, is not all gloom and doom as he also discusses the languages that have managed to be saved and are actually enjoying a rebirth.

I then thought I'd try and find some information on the decline of languages elsewhere on the web. I came across Leanne Hinton's powerpoint presentation from Berkeley. She starts off with a statistical look at languages in the world today,

Languages of the world

The Americas 1,013 15%
Africa 2,058 30%
Europe 230 3%
Asia 2,197 32%
The Pacific 1,311 19%
TOTAL 6,809

  • 330 languages each have one million speakers or more.

  • the median size language in the world is 6,000

  • 450 languages are in the last stages of becoming extinct speakers

  • She continues with more facts. Like the fact that there only about 200 independent nations in the world.

    Some ecological features of national languages

    1. spoken by a large population
    2. language of government
    3. language of the schools
    4. language of the media
    5. language of employment, commerce, etc.
    Nearly extinct languages

    Africa (37 total)
    The Americas (161 total)
    Asia (55 total)
    Europe (7 total)
    The Pacific (157 total)

    Some ecological features of endangered languages
    1. spoken by a small population
    2. NOT language of government
    3. NOT language of the schools
    4. NOT language of the media
    5. NOT language of employment, commerce, etc.

    She then breaks down the example of the 161 nearly endangered languages in The Americas to drive home the point.

    In the U.S.A.

  • 175 living indigenous languages

  • 20 being learned by children at home

  • In California

  • originally at least 80 different languages

  • now 50 with any speakers

  • none are spoken natively by people under about 60 years old

  • only about 5 have more than 10 speakers


    External factors leading to language shift

  • Schools

  • Language policy

  • Attitudes of general population

  • media

  • employment

  • prevalence of English in all walks of life

  • Internal factors leading to language loss

  • internalized shame of language

  • perception of lack of benefit of knowing the language

  • perceptions and misperceptions about language acquisition

  • Family dynamics in language loss
    1. Parents decided to speak English so child would learn it early and not suffer.
    2. Child rejects the language
    3. Siblings start speaking to each other in English
    4. lack of perceived need of the heritage language

    Some historical factors in Native American language loss
    1. boarding school policy
    2. World War II
    3. present day schools, economic system, TV, the likes.

    Changes in endangered languages
    1. major language change
    2. Massive Borrowing
    3. Incomplete learning
    4. Attrition
    5. Passive competence

    Why does this matter to Anthropologists?

    1. The languages are exciting in their own right
    2. language loss goes along with loss of knowledge, verbal arts, cultural and ecological practices
    3. human rights: the right to autonomy

    It is this second point that matters most to Anthropologists.

    Hinton, Leanne. Nd. "Endangered Languages". Berkeley Language Center. Available online:

    Robinson, Andrew. 2009. "Vive la différence of languages". New Scientist. Posted: October 25, 2009. Available online:

    No comments: