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Eric Garland - Can Minority Languages Be Saved?

Eric Garland - Can Minority Languages Be Saved?



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Published by Eric Garland
Futurist Eric Garland looks at globalization's impact on smaller languages - and sees a surprising bright side to trends. From The Futurist Magazine.
Futurist Eric Garland looks at globalization's impact on smaller languages - and sees a surprising bright side to trends. From The Futurist Magazine.

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Published by: Eric Garland on Nov 28, 2007
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 July-August 2006
www.wfs.org 31
The increasing mobility of people, goods, andinformation has driven a powerful trend towardcultural uniformity and the extinction of locallanguages. But languages that have youngpeople, business, and government on their sideare alive and thriving.
lobalized economics andmedia are changing the faceof culture around the globe,reducing the number of lan-guages that humans speak. As theworld economy becomes more inte-grated, a common tongue has become more important than ever topromote commerce, and that putsspeakers of regional dialects andminority languages at a distinct dis-advantage. In addition, telecommu-nications has pressured languages to become more standardized, furthersqueezing local variations of lan-guage.Over the past 500 years, as nation-states developed and became morecentralized, regional dialects andminority languages have been domi-nated by the centrist dialects of theruling parties. Cornish has given
By Eric Garland 
   J   A   C   K   H   O   L   L   I   N   G   S   W   O   R   T   H   /   P   H   O   T   O   S .   C   O   M
©2006 World Future Society • 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 450, Bethesda, MD 20814, U.S.A. • All rights reserved.
Without question, there will be aneed for common languages, as stan-dardization allows growth in soft-ware and in people. But global pros-perity and new technologies mayalso allow smaller cultures to pre-serve their niches. It is clear fromseveral modern examples that a dy-ing or dead language can turnaround and become vibrant again,depending on people’s determina-tion and the government policiesthat are put in place.
Reversing Language Loss
The idea of saving languages isvery modern. When linguisticsscholar Joshua A. Fishman firstwrote of “reversing language shift”in his book of that title (1990), one re-viewer actually laughed at the no-tion. The conventional wisdomamong linguists, historians, and so-ciologists was that, if your cultureand language were on the way out,their doom was assured in a global-ized world. After all, the prevailingtrends are toward globalization anda unified world. Tiny dialects—suchas Breton, the Celtic language spo-ken in Brittany, a province on thenorthwestern coast of France—arenot a benefit in the global economy,since they are difficult to learn,poorly adapted to modern life, andunintelligible to almost everyone be-yond a small region.Learning or relearning a nativelanguage is often a political state-ment, an act of self-definition, onethat brings solidarity with our neigh- bors. It is political power, culturalreverence, and perhaps a feeling of control in a world where politicaland cultural borders are collapsingall around us. Minority languagesmay also have a place alongside ma- jority forms of communication. TheInternational Committee for the De-fense of the Breton Language sug-gests that early bilingualism canhelp prepare young people to masterseveral languages, which will be anadvantage—if not a necessity—forthe future in Europe.Changing world geopolitics is al-ready reforming the pressures onlanguages. The fall of the SovietUnion actually spurred a trendtoward reversing language loss. Inmany of the former Soviet republics,older Turkic languages have been re-vived, now that the Russian influ-ence is gone. Turkey is spending $1.5 billion to encourage the resurgenceof Turkish throughout the region.Language is power, economic andotherwise, and the Turks are capital-izing on the possibility of extendingtheir reach, causing a reverse of lan-guage shift in the region.
 July-August 2006
way to English, Breton to French,Bavarian to High German, andFu-jian-wa to Cantonese. Linguistsconcur that minority languages allover the world are giving way tomore dominant languages, such asEnglish, Mandarin, and Spanish,among others. The realities of com-merce and the seductive power of world pop culture are placing pres-sure on speakers of minority lan-guages to learn majority languagesor suffer the consequences: greaterdifficulty doing business, less accessto information, etc.These pressures are inducing arapid die-off of languages aroundthe world. Languages have been dis-appearing steadily, with 3,000 of theworld’s languages predicted to dis-appear in the next 100 years. Accord-ing to the United Nations Environ-ment Program, there are 5,000 to7,000 spoken languages in the world,with 4,000 to 5,000 of these classed asindigenous, used by native tribes.More than 2,500 are in danger of im-mediate extinction, and many moreare losing their link with the naturalworld, becoming museum piecesrather than living languages.Futurists have noted this loss withno little despair, for significant, cul-turally specific information may dis-appear along with a language. Forinstance, knowledge about uniquemedicines and treatments used byaboriginal groups could be lost for-ever if the language used to transmitthat information is banned by a ma- jority culture.The common wisdom is that glob-alization is the wave of the future,and in many respects this is undeni-able. However, swept up in this con-ventional wisdom is the notion thatlanguages and cultures will simplycease to exist, and people will in-stead choose “global” cultures andlanguages that will transcend boundaries.This is not the only potentialscenario. It is possible for globaliza-tion and new technology to safe-guard cultural identity while simul-taneously allowing free exchanges of ideas and goods. For centuries, di-alects and languages have been uni-fying to facilitate national identity,scientific research, and commerce.
AreaLiving LanguagesNumber of Speakers
Count Percentage Count Percentage
Africa2,09230.3%675.9 million11.8%Americas1,00214.547.5 million0.8Asia2,26932.83,489.9 million61.0Europe2393.51,504.4 million26.3Pacific1,31019.06.1 million0.1World6,912100.05,723.9 million100.0
Note: A living language is defined as one that is the first language of at least one speaker.Extinct languages that are spoken as a second language are excluded. Total world languagespeakers do not reflect total population because of insufficient data for some languages.
Global Distribution of Living Languages
Source: Ethnologue, 15th edition. Edited by Raymond G. Gordon Jr., SIL International,www.ethnologue.com.
It is becoming clear that, whenpeople have a strong cultural reasonto reverse language shift, they can ef-fectively resist the onslaught of ma- jority languages. Moreover, themass-media technologies that al-lowed the one-way dialogue of ma- jority languages to drive outminority languages and dialects arenow helping those silenced lan-guages to make a comeback. Speak-ers of these smaller languages canuse interactive technologies such asWeb sites, e-mail, and message boards to talk back to the world bycreating and distributing media intheir own language to a global dias-pora.
Québec: Case Study in ReversingLanguage Shift
Some minority languages areresurging despite the pressures of globalization. An excellent exampleof this phenomenon is Québec,which has shown that smaller lan-guages, given sufficient economicpower and policy planning, can re-sist even the strongest linguisticforce on the planet: English.Québec is a Canadian province of about 7 million inhabitants, wheremore than 95% are native Frenchspeakers. Since France signed theTreaty of Paris in 1763 and cededcommand of New France to the En-glish, North America’s French-speaking inhabitants have been sur-rounded by English-speakers, whoheld almost all official and economicpower over Québec. Though mostQuébec inhabitants lived and diedspeaking French, British governmentofficials and factory bosses generallyrequired the use of English.As the twentieth century stretchedon, even young Québecois began toturn toward bilingualism in Englishand away from French education.After hundreds of years of survival,Canadian French appeared headedtoward extinction. This created greattension among the people of Québec,culminating in the 1960s with the
Revolution Tranquille,
during whichnative francophone Québecois de-manded the use of French as theonly official language of theprovince.Today, Québecois strongly defendtheir language and have passed lawsto make it the medium of commerceand governance. Québec passed the
Loi 101,
requiring the public use of French in all cases and relegatingEnglish to a secondary status. Frenchis now the dominant language of commerce and government inQuébec; English is also available onan incidental basis in federal mat-ters, but French must always be of-fered. On the commercial side, eventhe extremely technical language of technology is translated into Frenchfor use in the province, such as fortextbooks and training manuals.In the media, all billboards andpublic signs must appear in French;English words, if used, must be ac-companied by a French translation.Also, the technology that supportedthe English language in Canada isnow used to maintain the regularuse of French. The Canadian govern-ment now pays for the support of fully bilingual national media, boththe English-language CanadianBroadcasting Company and itsFrench equivalent, Radio-Canada.Both stations require a certain per-centage of their offering to be origi-nal Canadian content. The govern-ment has decreed that the airwaveswill be filled with Canadian French(not even European French) pro-gramming. From the news to gameshows, Canadian French is clearlythe language of the province’s popu-lar culture.Another policy that effectivelysupports the reversal of languageshift in Québec is the encouragementof immigrants to speak the local lan-guage. West Africans, Haitians, Do-minicans, Poles, and Greeks are allencouraged to speak French whenarriving in places such as Montréaland Québec City; many immigrantsremain bilingual in their nativetongue and French, even though thepowerful influence of English can befelt all around from the rest of Canada and the United States.Québec is an example of a placewhere a language heading towardextinction has assured its own sur-vival by education, political will, andcommercial expedience. The tech-nologies that initially placed pres-sure on the people to learn English,such as mass media (TV, radio,public signage, and print), has beenappropriated to support the locallanguage now and in the future. It isan example of the technologies of globalization being used to supportthe minority culture.
Dead Languages Reborn:The Case of Hebrew
Hebrew demonstrates how a lan-guage can be brought back from thedead to form the basis of a nationalidentity. Israel united first as a stateand then deliberately as a linguisti-cally unified culture.
 July-August 2006
www.wfs.org 33 
Former Canadian Prime Minister JeanChretien
promotes bilingualism at aconference in Ottawa.

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