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Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Ethics of Saving Languages

The linguist John McWhorter wrote an NYT opinion piece entitled Why Save a Language? where he argues why we should care about saving dying languages, basically that language gives us a window into culture. As a computer scientist I appreciate the scientific value of studying languages but perhaps the question is not whether we should care but is it ethical to save languages?

Languages developed on geographical and geopolitical boundaries. Even as new methods of communication came along such as postal mail, the printing press, the telephone and television there never was a strong reason to learn multiple languages save for some small European nations and some professions such as academics and politics.

Then came the Internet and location mattered less but language barriers still persist. I've certainly noticed a marked increase in the number of young people around the world who know basic conversational English, much from the content they consume online. There's also a sizable amount of content in all the major languages.

But if you speak a small language where all the other native speakers are geographically very close to you, you lose this networked connection to the rest of humanity. Your only hope is to learn a second language and that second language might become a first language and so many of these small languages start to disappear.

I understand the desire of linguists and social scientists to want to keep these languages active, but to do so may make it harder for them to take advantage of our networked society. Linguists should study languages but they shouldn't interfere with the natural progression. Every time a language dies, the world gets more connected and that's not a bad thing.

11 comments:

  1. I thought that you were gonna turn the discussion into dying programming languages.

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  2. More connected as measured by number of possible connections. However, I can see how the strength of connections overall might be decreased by monoculture/language phenomena.

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  3. If you are one of the !Kung people, for example, your distinctive language makes you interesting to the outside world. It can help drive tourism and cultural exchange. Local languages are something a people have to offer to this larger networked world Lance speaks of, and can be of significant economic importance.

    Also, preserving endangered languages needn't come by withholding the use of a more dominant/cosmopolitan language, as Lance seems to suggest. I don't believe this is typical except in certain deliberately-insular societies.

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  4. It's not a zero-sum proposition. Throughout human history, multilingualism has been the norm. The implication in your last sentence is mixed up. Every time a language dies, a people lose their connection to their cultural history. Every time someone learns English, the world becomes more connected. This is why linguists know that language revitalization efforts must go hand in hand with encouraging multilingualism.

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  5. "Every time a language dies, the world gets more connected and that's not a bad thing. " So, continuing further: "Every time some (small, strange) nation disappears, the world gets more clean and united"? (Guess, who thought so 70 years ago?) Sorry for so naive (and provoking) association, but my native language should also better die as soon as possible ...

    B.t.w. wishing to stick on the "more connected" goal (not on "more interesting world"), one could try to revive the old fiasco - Esperanto language Because otherwise we all "stupid foreigners" will still continue to speak a "half English". And I doubt whether this really enriches the English language itself ...

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  6. I don't want to start an argument about why I disagree, just point out that the sentence "there never was a strong reason to learn multiple languages save for some small European nations" is incorrect. It is estimated that the majority of the world speaks at least two languages and in the past it was even more so, so probably most people have a good reason. In fact, imo, there are more reasons than what would fit in a comment.

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    1. Dom, there are many doubts about this claim that the majority of the world speaks at least 2 languages. There is little data to back up that claim, and it depends a lot on what "speaks" and "language" means. To give just one example, most people would agree that Cantonese and Mandarin count as two languages for this purpose, but even according to Chinese statistics the majority of Cantonese speakers in China (and the majority of Chinese overall) cannot be said to speak good Mandarin.

      And your "in the past it was even more so" claim is even less likely to be true. To take again China as an example, most people who do speak two languages there do so because of universal schooling, a fairly recent development.

      Anyway, what can be said is that there have always been many people that speak more than one language, but it is not clear at all that it is a majority.

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  7. Also, preserving languages means (most of the times) preserving people rights, because people who don't speak their mother tongue to their children usually don't have the right (legally or socially) to do it.

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    1. I know many people who do not speak their mother tongue to their children even though they have the right to do so. Most of them immigrants, btw. I think you are overgeneralizing here. And relatively few countries interfere with how parents are allowed to communicate with their kids, though many countries do regulate what language is acceptable at school.

      That is not to say that discrimination against certain languages does not exist. Of course it does. But the process of people losing their language is more complicated than that, and often involves several generations plus issues such as urbanization (internal migration), universal schooling, and mass media.

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  8. I think there is an evolutionary issue in your thoughts. During an evolutionary procedure the weak members of a population die while they are replaced by stronger ones; see natural choice in biology or genetic algorithms in CS. During the linguistic evolution of our world if weak languages die and not replaced by new ones this might help international communications by it is a cultural decadence. Same goes for programming languages, picture a world where there is only one programming language. It cannot be a good thing.

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  9. "Your only hope is to learn a second language and that second language might become a first language and so many of these small languages start to disappear."

    Lance, I usually really appreciate your blogging, but this contribution (and many of the comments) is painfully naive. No, this is not how small languages disappear. And the internet does not seem to change the basic dynamic.

    I don't even know where to start. If knowing a second language makes you lose your first, then Dutch and Swedish would now be on their death beds. And there is no reason to believe they are, as you quickly notice when you spend time there. The languages that are really in danger of dying out are VERY small and chances are you would not know their names ("small exotic" languages such as Hungarian or Catalan are all in the top-100 of the more than 5000 languages in the world, and in no danger of dying out). The reasons for them dying out are complicated, but involve to a significant degree internal migration (including urbanization), universal schooling (sometimes in the official language, but also often in another somewhat larger local language), and mass media. And often pressure and sometimes persecution, but that is not always needed. They certainly do not die because the kids learn some far-away foreign language in school.

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