Every language encapsulates a unique view of the world, containing a treasure trove of information about history, culture, and the natural environment. Every language is beautifully and intricately structured: from the sounds it uses, to the way its words and sentences are put together, to a well-told story, full of vivid imagery and unforgettable characters, subtle themes and deep significance.
Across the globe, however, minority communities are under threat of losing their unique languages and cultures. At the end of the twentieth century it was estimated that of Australia’s native languages, ninety percent were no longer being passed on to the children, and thus doomed to extinction as the older generation dies off; of North American native languages, eighty percent; of Russia’s indigenous languages, seventy percent. Today on average, every two weeks another language loses its last speaker.
Conservative estimates predict that of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, half may become extinct during the 21st century. Some say it could even be as high as ninety percent. Do we want to be known as the generation that saw their demise—and did nothing?
A Multi-faceted Threat
The geographic focus of Sulawesi Language Alliance is the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. With more than seven hundred indigenous languages (one tenth of the world’s total), Indonesia is culturally and linguistically diverse. The island of Sulawesi itself is home to 114 of these languages—in other words more indigenous languages are found on this one island than in most countries. Nonetheless, a majority of these languages are threatened. The threat is multi-faceted, including:
- near-total domination of the national language and culture in education, government offices, the courts, and the media;
- economies of scale, meaning the fewer the number of speakers, the less feasible it is to produce materials in that language, such as school curricula, TV and radio programming, newspapers, magazines, or books;
- disparagement of native languages as unsophisticated, and their speakers as backward and unintelligent;
- improved transportation infrastructure leading to increased access to previously isolated areas;
- influxes of outsiders, through spontaneous as well as government-sponsored immigration, to where in many places immigrants outnumber ethnic communities in their native areas;
- more villages receiving electricity—and more villagers watching TV, to the exclusion of traditional activities that would reinforce local language use;
- parents feeling they must speak only the national language to their children, otherwise they risk them underperforming in school;
- entire communities sending their children to towns and cities for schooling, starting as young as junior high school, where Indonesian is not only the language of education but also becomes the norm for interacting with their age mates.
Despite a great longing to to see their unique language and culture preserved—a feeling often paired with great sadness at seeing it slip away—people simply don’t know how to respond to the changes they see around them. Ironically, having survived for centuries through warfare, famine and pestilence, little in their previous experience has prepared them to hold on to their ethnic identity—indeed thrive—in today’s modern world.
Stages of Language Death
A healthy language is passed from parents to children. Each new generation learns the language. A language becomes endangered when these lines of intergenerational transmission are weakened—when a language is being passed on to fewer and fewer children.
The stages of language decline have been well documented. In broad scope there are three stages (Crystal 2000:78 ff. inter alia). In the first stage, a community faces pressure to speak the dominant language. The forces pushing in this direction may be known and come from a clear source; in many cases, however, the forces are only partially recognized and understood, emerging from a convergence of various political, social and economic dynamics.
The second stage is a period of emerging bilingualism, as people in the community become increasingly competent in the dominant language. Initially the new language is used in only a few domains, e.g. government offices and trade, but eventually expands into other domains.
The third stage is reached when the youngest generation identifies with the new language, and no longer considers their first language to be relevant—a stage often accompanied by feelings of shame toward the first language on the part of both children and parents. Even those families who choose to retain their heritage language find that they have fewer and fewer people with whom they can speak it.
One of the surprising things is how quickly a language can pass from stage two to stage three—within a generation, sometimes within a decade. Unfortunately many communities must come perilously close to the brink of cultural extinction before they awaken to the real threat of total language loss—and want act. The question is, will it be too late?
Even the size of a community is no guarantee that their language is safe. For example at 125,000 strong, the Banggai are one of the larger ethnic groups of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Nonetheless, a recent survey found that not only do children and teenagers “not use Banggai, but also do not understand it, and are unlikely to be encouraged to use it in the future as their primary language; and only adult populations (beginning from their late thirties) can speak Banggai, and they mainly use it for intimate communication between each other” (Aprilani, Tarp and Susilawati 2010:15)—a classic scenario of an endangered language.
Prior to extinction, a language enters a stage where it is ‘moribund.’ It is still living in a sense, but only among older speakers. Without its being learned by the next generation, it is only a matter of time before the language is lost as its last remaining speakers pass away.
The first response to the disappearance of the world’s languages is to document them, to provide a record of a language before it is lost. Language documentation means to assemble a record of a language while it is still being spoken. The three major thrusts of language documentation are generally considered to be:
- videotaping or recording a wide variety of texts, from stories to everyday conversations, along with transcriptions and translations;
- describing the basic grammatical patterns of the language, such as pronoun sets and verb paradigms, which help make the texts interpretable;
- compiling a dictionary of the language.
‘Salvage documentation’ means to create a record of a language that is already in a moribund state, often when it has only a few remaining older speakers.
Language Revitalization and Maintenance
A second, deeper response aims not just at documenting a language, but to see it continue as a living language. Ultimately that decision must be the choice of the community itself, but outside linguists have valuable skills to contribute to the effort.
Language revitalization means to help a community recover from a state in which their language is endangered, and bring it back to a healthy state. Language maintenance means to help a community keep their language in a healthy state. The goal here is not to return a language to some pristine or golden age from the past, but to achieve a state of stable bilingualism in which the old and new languages have complementary functions. The old language is valued for maintaining identity and social relationships, while the new language is valued for reaching out, interacting with others, and expanding one’s horizons.
The ideal time for intervention is when a language is still in the middle stage—people are are becoming proficient with the new language, but children are still learning the old language. As the ‘youngest generation of good speakers’ ages from teens to parents to grandparents to a handful of speakers, revitalization efforts become increasingly difficult.
While revitalization efforts can have several subsidiary goals—for example, increasing the contexts or the types of media in which a language is used—the primary objective must always be parents speaking the language to their children. If parents aren’t naturally transferring the language to the next generation, then our best, other efforts will eventually prove unsuccessful.
Crystal, David. 2000. Language death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Aprilani, Herdian; Kristina Tarp, and Tanti Susilawati. 2010. The Banggai of Central Sulawesi: A rapid appraisal survey report. SIL Electronic Survey Reports 2010-020. Online. URL: http://www.sil.org/resources/publications/entry/9062.