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8. Overheard on the Web
Old Traditions versus Modern Life in Linguistic Minorities, and the Case for Diversity

29 Sept 2002, Endangered_Languages_List
From: "Gerd Jendraschek" jendraschek(at)

Dear Julia (and all the others),

Some days ago, you wrote the following:

One speaker made a point that I could identify with. He said that although English was his first language, he had never felt that it was his native language, and now he was reclaiming his own language and finding it very fulfilling.

Some time ago, I heard someone from Brittany complain that he could notspeak his native language ("Je ne sais pas parler ma langue maternelle.") and he meant by that that he was monolingual in French. I was wondering whyhe had used the concept of 'mother tongue' for a language he had obviouslynever acquired during his childhood, which is an uncommon usage of the term.At the time, I thought he had just mixed up terminology and meant somethinglike "the language of my region/of my ancestors", but your message suggestsanother interpretation.

In a rather literal sense he could have meant that his mother was able to speak Breton, but did not transmit the language. However, most probably he intended to say that "under normal circumstances" Breton would be his firstlanguage if transmission had not been interrupted by a language policy advocating monolingualism in the official language (as did language policies all over the world). In such a setting you could call the dominant language "foster language" by analogy to "foster parents". Foster parents aresupposed to fulfil the same role as "biological parents" (which in my analogy might correspond to the term "heritage language") but quite often the affective relationship cannot be the same: it can only be a replacement for a loss. You probably heard about the many cases of adopted children looking desperately for their genetic ancestors although there is no rational, but only an affective need to do so. A while ago, I also heard of two sisters who were brought up in different families in different countries and spoke different languages, but although they were foreigners to each other there was an emotional link.

I am more and more convinced that a "link to your (own) past" makes you know who you are and is crucial for cultural creativity and that cutting this link entails cultural disorientation.

I have been thinking about the "emotional factor" in language preservation for quite a while, as it seems to be the only argument that can convince monolingual laymen who appear to see particular languages as a communication device they happen to use in the same way as they use telephones and postcards, i.e. replaceable if something more efficient shows up. Maybe I am exaggerating; at least I hope so.

Paul Lewis Paul_Lewis(at)SIL.ORG
wrote on 1 Oct 2002 to endangered-languages-l(at)

For some time now, I have been curious about the phenomena surrounding many revitalization movements where identity, previously taken for granted based on biological, cultural, and historical affinities, becomes increasingly a matter of ideology. So one begins to hear that Mr. X is not Xish, in spite of his genetic, cultural and historical background (or even his language use patterns), but simply because he has a different ideology from that of the campaigners. Thus it could come to pass that one's mother didn't speak the mother tongue though perhaps she did speak the native language.

Similarly, I have heard campaigners, many of whom no longer speak their heritage language well or at all, complain that their mostly monolingual elders are obstacles to the preservation and revitalization of the heritage language. This curious and paradoxical state of affairs seems to me to be quite akin to the kinds of loyalty confusion found in adoptive and foster children as pointed out earlier.

I also find the notion of "who owns the language" an interesting issue to consider. Victor's point that languages "live" in social networks is an important idea to keep in mind. It strikes me that languages which are on (or need) life support are rarely those which have such a social network. Two speakers or even ten, do not a healthy social network make. Attempts to preserve a language, can be those which attempt to preserve it unchanged - essentially putting it in a glass case in a museum - another butterfly for the collection, carefully pinned down, well-displayed, but very very dead. On the other hand, languages which are going to go on living necessarily need to be placed in an environment where they can thrive. It seems that the creation of a supportive social network needs to be the top priority and along with that the language needs to be allowed to grow and adapt to the social environment in which it finds itself. I fear that too often preservation and advancement of the ideology overrides concerns for the preservation of the society and its language.

I fear that many campaigners tend to wrench the language out of its social setting in order to preserve it rather than attempting to nurture the social setting in order to give the language a place to begin to grow again.

2 Oct 2002, Endangered_Languages_List
From: "Gerd Jendraschek" jendraschek(at)

To the argument:
Another argument that we can give for saving small languages is that diversity is a 'good thing': in nature, society, and languages.

I do of course agree in principle, but it is not so easy to explain why diversity is a 'good thing'. I remember that we have been trying to do that on this list some time ago in response to the 'famous' Wallstreet Journal article. First, the explanations sound very abstract and philosophical and second, there are too many people who think that the spread of universal monoculture is a better thing. Rather than arguing that diversity is good, I would say that diversity is 'natural' and that homogenization, i.e. reducing diversity, is totalitarian.

Unless one is advocating some kind of racist "blood and soil" theory (I hope not) the only "emotional factor" that should influence a person's choice of an identity language is his or her personal linguistic history.

But impersonal connections with a "past" that comes out of books or constructed communal history are "emotional factors" only to the extent that political rhetoric makes them so.

This is an important point as it refers to the political implications of language revitalization movements. As linguists we would prefer not to get involved in political quarrels and to stick to purely linguistic questions. However, this is often impossible because, as Fishman explained, "successful revitalization is part of a larger ethnocultural goal". This 'larger goal' is often defined by regional nationalists (with political claims) and we cannot deny that nationalists play an important role in language revitalization movements (see e.g. UK or Spain). On the other hand, the term 'ethnocultural' alone could be associated with 'blood-and-soil-theories' and we cannot deny either that many nationalist movements have a propensity for racism and exclusion. A way out of this dilemma could be to forget about 'blood' (connections with ancestors) and to concentrate on 'soil' (connections with a territory), and some nationalist movements have indeed made such an evolution, e.g. "the moderate parts" in Corsica and the Basque Country. We have to pay attention to the strong link between a language community and the geographic area where the language is spoken. According to the "individualistic approach", languages exist only in the speakers' mind and are thus independent of communities and territories, but languages are not made for monologues. If we want a language to be used (instead of being an object of pure intellectual interest), language revitalization must first take place where concentration/density of speakers is highest, which entails the necessity to define the size of the community and of its territory. Unless communities and their territories are not hermetic, everybody interested can be or become part of the community, old native speakers, young learners, immigrants and -- of course -- linguists.

2 Oct 2002, Endangered_Languages_List
From: "Gerd Jendraschek" jendraschek(at)

To the argument:
Once again this raises the question of language and identity and language and culture, as well as potential splits between enthusiasts.

Younger campaigners are more willing to divorce the language from the traditional culture that older native speakers identify with and regret the passing of: some younger people experienced the traditional culture as repressive, so it may not be good PR to link language to old culture too much!

Why should it be "either-or"?? I would rather say that culture must embrace both directions, the past AND the future. If you want to see a good example of how a revitalization movement links language to both old and new culture, take a look at Basque television. You have many reports on traditional sports, festivities, food, singing etc. On the same channel, you have a lot of programming for children (quite untraditional comic strips) as well as dubbed US films and series. Of course only few linguistic minorities can afford TV in their language, but whatever the strategy of language spread may be, the principle should be the same. The important point is not to be traditional vs.modern, but to be attractive. It is not a particularity of linguistic minorities that old and young members do not share the same interests. But whereas this is not a big tragedy in stable communities, it is problematic in the case of endangered languages. This is particularly visible in the Occitan area: a newspaper article on Occitan in schools was entitled 'En Languedoc-Roussillon, de l'occitan "naturel" l'occitan "chimique"'. The old speak a local variety whereas the young learn a semi-standardized 'chemical' form, and moreover, even if they both speak the same language, there is not much they can talk about with each other because they don't have the same cultural background any more.



However, the debate on whether language preservation should give a priority to traditional or modern culture depends a lot on the economic structure of the community. In Manx, there seems to be a lot of financial terminology (maybe someone on the list can say more about this case), as financial services are a major source of income. Nomadic tribes in the rain forest however would have no need for a glossary on financial services.

9 Oct 2002, Endangered_Languages_List
From: "Mark Anderson" markusdow(at)

I think that the arguments for diversity are not as abstract as people make out. From the point of view of any speaker of a dominant language who has been spoonfed with 1st-world ethnocentric rubbish then of course it would seem counter-intuitive to be promoting diversity, whatever the terminology. If these people weren't so ignorant of the facts - i.e. that diversity is threatened because of power differences between cultures - then everyone would agree that diversity is a "good thing" anyway. That is to say, whatever terminology is used to explain the value of diversity, the arguments falls on deaf ears unless people come to recognise the power they wield and how it destroys smaller cultures.

I actually think that most people do think that diversity is a "good thing", just as most would agree that biodiversity is. The problem is that people belonging to dominant cultures do not perceive diversity to be under threat around them on a daily basis, so they do not know how to manage it. To them, language is not an issue because it is viewed only as a tool for communication, and not as a true part of culture. Language shift is witnessed in Ireland, for example, and the fact that there has been an accompanying loss of culture (and therefore diversity) is not perceived - after all, other aspects of their culture such as traditional music are thriving. This is taken as evidence that you can be just as "Irish" even if you are monolingual in English. If it were made clear that cultural shift has occurred, and that non-Irish speaking Irish have become more "Anglo" in terms of their culture, then the problem would be taken more seriously.

Because a lot of these arguments are not self-evident to most people belonging to dominant cultures, the only way I can see to change attitudes is via mass education of young people. If enough awareness of minority culture issues can be promoted then the trend could be reversed (what about making "culture and society" lessons a separate humanities subject from geography/history etc, and include discussions of politics and language death etc.?) At the moment there is a massive gaping hole in the curriculum here, which is especially shocking given that everyone seems to want to live in a "trendy, multicultural society" as they would like to view it, but nobody seems to know what multiculturalism is, or how to deal with it. People seem to think it is a good thing as long as other cultures undergo language shift and fit in with dominant cultural norms - the "I don't mind if he's an [x] and becomes a lawyer as long as he lives in a decent house, teaches his kids to behave and do! esn't speak some foreign language" syndrome. In an atmosphere like this, kids would have to be taught from an early age the value of other cultures and multilingualism, and how to embrace them, not just tolerate them. In other words they have to be taught to reject ethnocentrism. Otherwise this is a vicious circle that cannot be broken.

Unfortunately we have ignorant political leaders who would never have the sense to see why this sort of education would help a) the survival of minority cultures and diversity, b) relations with immigrant groups, and c) world peace in general. They are more interested in making war and flaunting their power. If the current climate of unacknowledged ethnocentrism persists, then there is no hope for any smaller cultures in the next few decades. Education and language revitalisation efforts on the minority side must surely be accompanied by mass education on the dominant side, otherwise the root cause of the "illness" is left unhealed to cause further infection. It is not enough to view minority cultures as being "ill" and "dying". Dominant cultures also have an "illness" that needs to be seen to - a chronic ongoing one that is contagious!

Basically the emphasis should be on the effects of power imbalance on minority cultures, rather than on diversity itself. If people can be educated so that they can see the "power trip" for what it is and does, then the value of diversity would become self-evident.

South Pacific Language Loss Rate

From: Piripi Walker piripi(at)
I work with tribes (including my own) and NGO groups here in Aotearoa NZ, but for a recent Maori language update in New Zealand (from a Government source) have a look at The Ministry of Maori Affairs News site:

An excerpt from the info at this site: New Publication launched this week - "The Health of the Maori Language in 2001"

The full report can be viewed (PDF) at the above site.

"Te Puni Kokiri's latest publication "The Health of the Maori Language in 2001", brings together three years of research and shows that te Reo Maori is no longer in danger of dying, but there is still a lot of work to do.

"The publication was launched in Wellington on Monday by the Minister of Maori Affairs Parekura Horomia in Wellington. The research shows that a combination of Maori and Government educational and broadcasting initiatives has provided a stable platform for the continued growth of Maori language. For the first time in decades the speaking population has stabilised - not declined, that there are more enrolments in Maori language programmes and more Maori speakers are speaking Maori with children.

"Te Puni Kokiri chief executive Leith Comer says that the report provides valuable information on the current status of the Maori language and also addresses the challenges that exist for Maori and the Government in cementing the language for future generations.

"Just over twenty years ago the Maori language was almost classified as a dying language. It wasn't spoken at home, it wasn't taught widely in our classrooms and it certainly wasn't heard over the airwaves. This is no longer the case and thanks to the commitment of Maori based initiatives we should rightly celebrate that now 25% of the Maori population speak Maori."

"Mr Comer says Te Reo Maori is part of the essence of being Maori and being Maori is unique to New Zealand. The next challenge for all those involved in the continued growth of the Maori language is building on the platform that has been set.

"Together Maori and Government have a role to play in ensuring that the Maori language continues to be spoken by future generations.

"Some of the report's key recommendations are:

- Promoting Maori language use in home and community settings - Supporting local level language planning to reflect unique circumstances at a local and regional level and amongst iwi - Developing safe environments and support mechanisms to activate 'latent' Maori language skills amongst Maori adults'

The Maori Language Commission has information on the current state of Maori:

Our Maori channel is set to launch next year, fingers crossed.

Nga mihi ki nga Eller katoa!

Piripi Walker

P.O.Box 37-276, Stokes Valley
Ph 064-4-5636-215, Fax 064-4-5636-219
Mobile 027-4930-632
email: piripi(at)

E, kei whatiwhati noa mai i te rau o te rata.
'Ah, don't pluck the blossom of the rata.' Some things are beautiful as they are. There is nothing we can do to improve them.
Nga Pepeha o Nga Tupuna VUW Press 2002

"No child left behind"

Tony Woodbury, Chair, Department of Linguistics, University of Texas at Austin, raised the question of the impact of this approach to educational deprivation.

I am currently in Chevak, Alaska, a Cup'ik-speaking community which has been considering a Cup'ik-only language immersion program in its publically-funded schools. Among other things I am working with people here on plans to bring such a program about.

Under the rubric 'No child left behind,' the federal government has is establishing a system of standardized testing of children at various "benchmark" points, including the third grade (8-year olds, basically). Schools with performance below a certain level are subject to draconian interventions, including loss of federal funds, closing down, or being put under entirely nonlocal control.

The trouble is that these tests are in ENGLISH, and the require that students have training in English. That pretty much destroys any effort to institute immersion because the negative consequences for the community as a whole are immense.

In the case of Chevak--which hasn't quite taken the plunge yet--federal rules like these make immersion seem prohibitively risky. In the case of schools in the area which took the plunge several years ago and have been enjoying the benefits of immersion education, things are even worse. In Bethel, AK, where there is an immersion school in Yup'ik (closely related to Cup'ik) the immersion school was granted a waiver from the benchmark tests for several years but now has been told it must take them, despite inadequate preparation on the kids' part. Chris Meier, co-principal of the school, writes (Tundra Drums, Aug. 29,2002):

"This is not only immoral, it is illegal, and is in direct conflict with the Native American Languages Act [an act of the US Congress in 1991--acw]. This law states: 'The right of Native Americans to express themselves through the use of Native American languages shall not be restricted in any public proceedings, including publicly supported education programs.' The law further instructs Federal departments to "'Evaluate their policies and procedures in consultation with Indian tribes and other Native American governing bodies as well as traditional leaders and educators in order to determine and implement changes needed to bring the policies and procedures into compliance with the provisions of this title.'"