The people who want their language to disappear

This is a bit of an old article now, but I only recently came across it. It discusses the members of the Maidu community who, because knowledge of their language has come to be associated with so many negative aspects of their people’s history, would prefer to see the language fade away silently than give it new life. I found it interesting to see the reaction of the author when he heard about Maidu’s endangered status, which is the one of many linguists: we need to document it before it goes! But of course that decision isn’t really for the linguists or activists to make, at least not if they purport to respect the agency and autonomy of the people they work with.

A trickier issue is when some members of a community would like to see the language revived, others want to see it fade away, and still others would only like to see it revived if the language is taught and spoken in a certain way, following particular language ideologies or prescriptive norms. The linguist wants to see the language documented, and some members of the community would be happy to collaborate on the effort, but others may oppose it vehemently. What does the linguist do?

My perspective on the matter is to recognize that a ‘community’ is a bit of a floating abstraction, and what really matters is not violating the rights or autonomy of any individual person. If just one person wants to work with me, they’re free to do so. At the same time, however, working on a project with a lot of community opposition is very likely going to become entangled in local politics, and will certainly propagate the (sometimes quite deserved) negative attitude that many indigenous communities have towards linguists and anthropologists. So the linguist interested in working with a divided community would be wise to encourage communication between different factions, perhaps by holding an informational session to address potential concerns, and to always look for ways to get buy-in from other members of the community and address their concerns. For example, a common concern is that the language will not be taught correctly, and the youth will speak a corrupted version of the language. A linguist’s expertise can be helpful here, because they can explain that language change is a natural thing, or agree to publish materials only from the speakers that community members feel speak the language well.

Another useful role for the linguist, which isn’t necessarily relevant in the Maidu case, is simply debunking some common language myths. For example, most people implicitly assume that languages are mutually exclusive things – one either has to learn their heritage language in school, or learn English, but not both. Linguists can explain that parents don’t have to make a choice between the two languages for their children. Not only is it possible for children to become fully bilingual, but it bestows them with all sorts of cognitive benefits as well.

In the end, however, no matter how much educating the linguist tries to do, it may simply be the case that the community doesn’t want to see the language spoken again. I’m reminded of an excellent blog post by Emerson Odango last year on the importance of saying ‘no’, where he discusses why it was a good thing that the speakers he worked with turned down some of his requests. If linguists are serious about supporting the autonomy of indigenous peoples, we ought to support this decision wholeheartedly.

The imperialism of language

LEARNING English will make you rich, and learning Arabic will make you holy. No one ever says these things out loud in Pakistan, but their premises undergird many decisions. They dominate the thinking of parents braving long lines outside the compounds of English-medium schools during admissions season. They inspire other, newer educational institutions to advertise that they teach both Arabic and English to their students — a winning recipe for the next generation ie, holiness and wealth.

Unsurprisingly, then, many regional languages in Pakistan are dying a slow and silent death. According to one report, one-fifth of the 30 regional languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are in danger of extinction, with only a handful of some hundred people left to speak them. The languages gasping for life include Ushojo, Gawro, Gawarbati, Badeshi and several others.

According to Fakhruddin Akhundzada, a Pakistani linguist, Yidhga, a language of Chitral, is one of those recently placed on the endangered languages list by the United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organisation. Also comatose and nearly dead is Ushojo, another language from the same area, which numbers only about 200 people among its speakers.

Read the full article here:

Learning New Words Activates The Same Brain Regions As Sex And Drugs

While it doesn’t get much better than sex and drugs for many out there, new research has found that simply learning a new word can spark up the same reward circuits in the brain that are activated during pleasurable activities such as these. No wonder there are so many bookworms and scrabble addicts out there.

Human language is a unique phenomenon that separates us from other members of the animal kingdom. The emergence of language was a hugely important step in our evolution because it allowed humans to cooperate and share knowledge more easily. But what motivates us to acquire a new language from a very early age has been a mystery. Some hypothesized that language-learning mechanisms may have been linked to reward circuits in the brain, reinforcing the drive to learn new words. Until now, however, experimental evidence in support of this has been lacking.

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While old Indigenous languages disappear, new ones evolve

Felicity Meakins
ARC Research Fellow (DECRA) in Linguistics at The University of Queensland

By now we know that traditional Indigenous languages are losing speakers rapidly and tragically. Of the 250 languages once spoken in Australia, only 40 remain and just 18 of these are still learnt by children. But if children in remote Indigenous communities aren’t still learning traditional languages, then what are they learning? It is generally assumed they are shifting to English, but this is not the case.

In many areas of northern and central Australia, language loss has been accompanied by language genesis. Indigenous youth are creating new languages which combine the sounds, words and grammar from traditional languages and Indigenous English varieties. The younger generations who create these languages claim them as in-group languages which express both their traditional heritage and modern lives.

The most widespread of these new languages is a creole language, also called Kriol (confusingly), now spoken by at least 20,000 Indigenous people across northern Australia, from Cape York to Broome. Astonishingly most non-Indigenous Australians have never even heard of it.

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Which English You Speak Has Nothing to Do With How Smart You Are

By Anne H. Charity Hudley

How can linguists and educators work together to help maintain the linguistic voices of the next Zora Neale Hurston or Albert Einstein while at the same time support students on the Common Core, SATs, GREs, and LSATs?

In classrooms across the U.S., there are kids who speak a wide variety of types of English. Even though it’s historical accident that anyone considers “isn’t” better than “ain’t” or “wash” better than “warsh,” those kids who just axed a question may feel dumb and be treated as if they’re dumb by the people around them. And it starts young: Even by the end of kindergarten, many students have absorbed messages that their language is wrong, incorrect, dumb, or stigmatized.

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