Language is a massive part of culture. There’s absolutely no denying it. Anyone who speaks multiple languages that are from cultures that do not generally intertwine (i.e., not places like Pakistan, where they may grow up to speak three or more languages, such as Urdu, Hindi, and English) understand well. But the internet, along with a rapidly increasing desire to communicate with people across the world, is homogenizing us in ways that some say are detrimental to smaller cultures. I decided to make compilations of TED talks among various topics, and I’m going to start with linguicide, the death of a language. We’ll start with one person who is trying to decipher the script of the Indus people; another who has studied many cultures across the globe; and another who believes that we can unite the world under one language, without doing so at the expense of other languages.
Rajesh Rao on the Mystery of the Indus Script
How would you go about deciphering a language that you don’t understand? What if the last surviving speaker has been dead for thousands of years? Rajesh Rao – a computational neuroscientist – and his colleagues have been making great strides into figuring out facets of the script, such as, for example, which direction the script was written. It’s a fascinating talk that shows us how far our technology and our knowledge of linguistics has come to reveal what we can about the past, as well as our limitations.
“The Indus civilization does not belong to just the South Indians or the North Indians or the Pakistanis; it belongs to all of us. These are our ancestors — yours and mine. They were silenced by an unfortunate accident of history. If we decipher the script, we would enable them to speak to us again.”
As the Guardian states, “Dr Rao uses computational modeling to understand the human mind in two ways: first, he develops computer models to describe how human minds think, and then second, he applies these models to the task of deciphering the 4,000-year-old script of the Indus valley civilization.” Obviously it was too late for Rao to prevent the death of culture that the Indus Valley Civilization experienced, but there are others who have made it their mission to do so.
Wade Davis Fears for the Future of Cultural Diversity
As Anthropologist Wade Davis knows, the only possible way to preserve a language is to teach it to a baby. A language can’t truly be preserved (at least not in its natural state) if it is only a second language. It must become the native language of an individual, because of the connections made in the brain which result from language learning. Davis has traveled all over the world with National Geographic, and has been inspired to try to keep the cultures of various peoples alive. His talk on endangered cultures explores people from all over the world, and he talks about language’s role in culture as well.
“A language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.
[…] When each of you in this room were born, there were 6,000 languages spoken on the planet. […] And of those 6,000 languages […] fully half are no longer being whispered into the ears of children. They’re no longer being taught to babies, which means, effectively, unless something changes, they’re already dead.”
Languages change in dominance as history changes. French used to be the most globally widespread or important (for lack of a better term) language, whereas English is now. In 50 years, Chinese (i.e., Mandarin) is expected to overtake English. In fact, Hindi, Urdu, and Arabic may also overtake English, and the world may soon begin teaching courses in Bengali, Tamil and Malay, which are also rapidly growing languages.
The guardian released an exhaustive and authoritative list of endangered and extinct languages on April 15 this year, and you can see the gigantic amount of already extinct and soon-to-be extinct languages. The whole list is arranged by the number of living speakers. Languages don’t die out in years so much as generations, but you can be sure that most of the languages with less than 1000 speakers won’t survive more than a few generations at most. That’s about half the list right there (meaning, a ton of endangered languages). …And that’s only up to 1000 speakers. A thousand doesn’t even come close to what you’d really need, depending on how spread out the people are.
If, for example, you have 1000 speakers spread all over the world, you can kiss that language goodbye. So just imagine how much more linguistically homogenized we’ll become in a century. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if 90% of current languages are extinct by the end of the century, which is what some researchers are now saying.
Jay Walker Welcomes the Expansion of English
English Opens Many Doors
Modern linguicide is much more complicated than simply blaming someone or something. For example, Canada wrote the Indian Act a century and a half ago, forcing Indian children to go to horrendously abusive residential schools (i.e., high risk of dying before graduation) to learn English and give up their culture, and we know exactly who to blame. Today, people begin to learn the more dominant languages as a way to keep up with the rest of the world. This raises the question: Is it really so bad that entire cultures are systematically learning a language which gives them access to more resources?
“The world has a new mania. A mania for learning English. Why English? In a single word: Opportunity. […] Opportunity for a better life, a job, to be able to pay for school, or put better food on the table. […] English represents hope for a better future. A future where the world has a common language to solve its common problems.”
Jay Walker is extremely well-spoken, and he makes some excellent points in his 4-minute TED talk (or his extended 6-minute YouTube video which is basically the same thing with a few extras). As he mentions, 2 billion people are now learning English, and this could have huge ramifications for the way the world solves problems together.
English Closes Some Doors
With that said, however, Walker makes little attempt to support his argument when he talks about the world turning to English. “Is English mania good or bad?” He asks. “Is English a tsunami, washing away other languages? Not likely.” This is as far as he runs with that assertion. No research, and no data to back that up. “Not likely?” Of course it’s likely. If literally everyone in the world grew up to speak English (regardless of any other languages also prevalent) I guarantee we’d see a miniscule fraction of the languages that exist today. For the reasons Walker himself makes, people will want to learn English because it’s practical. Case in point: Newfoundland, Canada.
In the past few years, the residents of Newfoundland – which is often ridiculed for its people having comical “Newfy accents” – has seen the number of young people able and willing to speak “Newfoundland English” dwindle. As the blog StimuliForBirds reports – based on the work of Gerard Van Herk, a linguist at Memorial University, in Newfoundland – Newfoundlanders speak “the most linguistically diverse English in the world.” People in virtually every town speak a slightly different dialect, which actually allows them to identify where each other live. While this is certainly an interesting detail that Newfoundlanders probably historically put to good use, there’s just one problem: The rest of the country has no idea what the hell they’re talking about!
So it’s no wonder that “Newfy English” is dying – people don’t consider it worth the effort to learn. Just like Walker said, it’s all about opportunity. But he also said this: “English is the world’s second language. Your native language is your life. But with English you can become part of a wider conversation.” This makes me think that Walker is either downplaying or oblivious to the self-fulfilling prophecy with regards to language learning.
Why English Anyway?
To put it bluntly: The “value” of a language is correlated to how many people speak it. Therefore, there’s little point in learning a language if it isolates you from the rest of the country. This is why you don’t see any universities teaching J.R.R. Tolkein’s invented (but apparently fully-functional) “Elvish” language. So if everyone thinks a language is important, which Walker certainly does for English, then more people will be motivated to learn it, which creates a cycle of demand, or a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But as I mentioned above, English will soon be overtaken by, among other languages, Mandarin. Therefore, not only will China be the biggest English-speaking country in the world, but English won’t even be the most prominent language in the world! So maybe the English-speaking monolingual world will become the new Newfoundland, having to adapt to the overwhelming number of non-English-speaking people that will exist in a few decades.
In fact, Wade Davis isn’t even sure that we should embrace English as such an international language. Also from his talk (above), he said:
“And I know there’s some of you who say, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be better? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all just spoke one language?’ And I say, ‘Great, let’s make that language Yoruba. Let’s make it Cantonese. Let’s make it Kogi.’ And you’ll suddenly discover what it would be like to be unable to speak your own language.”
Indeed, if the question “What makes English so special?” is answered by “Because it’s the most commonly used language,” then I’m afraid English as a “language of problem solving,” which Walker asserts, is only going to be temporary. At least, until the next big language sweeps English away, just as English had done in the past.
The Importance of Language to Culture
Watching Language Fade Away
I could write about the influence of language on culture for an entire book, but another TED presenter, Phil Borges (who I didn’t include here because only the beginning talked about language while the rest was about culture), said this in 2006:
“A fact came out of MIT a couple of years ago. Ken Hale, who’s a linguist, said that of the 6,000 languages spoken on Earth right now, 3,000 aren’t spoken by the children. So that in one generation, we’re going to halve our cultural diversity. He went on to say that every two weeks, an elder goes to the grave carrying the last spoken word of that culture. So an entire philosophy, a body of knowledge about the natural world that had been empirically gleaned over centuries, goes away.”
The really heartbreaking thing is that we don’t know the scope of what we don’t know, so we can’t even begin to imagine what forgotten languages like the Indus script – or the “mother of all crossword puzzles, as Rao puts it – might reveal, if decoded. And don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying anything bad about English, or any individual language for that matter.
In fact, I do think that it is inevitable that we will lose a lot of languages. As British writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik says, it’s “irrational” to try to preserve all of the languages of the world. “In one sense you could call it a cultural loss,” he said, “but that makes no sense because cultural forms are lost all the time. To say every cultural form should exist forever is ridiculous.” It seems virtually impossible to do so too. As ChinaSmack reports, “3% of the world’s population speak 96% of the world’s languages.”
Manuel Segovia and Isidro Velazquez, the last two people in the world whose native language is “Nuumte Oote,” aren’t making particularly strong efforts to preserve their language either. In fact, the two won’t even speak to each other. They live in Mexico, and as the Sydney Morning Herald reports, the language has “survived the Spanish conquest, seen off wars, revolutions, famines and floods.” But the National Indigenous Language Institute is planning a final attempt to get these two men to impart their knowledge unto the younger locals.
Reviving a language is almost impossible. The only example we have of such success is Hebrew, which went from an sacred language, to a reinvented spoken language. Now millions of people speak Hebrew as their native tongues. Otherwise, lost languages haven’t had any luck. Therefore, I think the best we can do for endangered languages – the ones which are pretty much doomed no matter what – is making efforts to record as much of its cultural nuances that people may not understand without having someone there to speak it (in addition to the obvious language resources such as dictionaries).
To explain what I mean, imagine the language of Japanese had vanished. It would be nice for future linguists and historians to have records that explain why there were various ways of saying “you” and “me.” In English there is only one way to say each, but in Japanese, the many ways differ in order to express status, which is a key element in the everyday interactions within Japan. For example, it may be okay to say “ore” (I, me) to my friends, but I would never say that to my teachers.
Of course writing these cultural nuances won’t come close to revealing the full character of a culture within its language; but I think Rao would agree that something is better than nothing.