Read This: “Vanishing Voices”

What is lost when a language goes silent?

Today, I suggest that you set aside fifteen minutes to read National Geographic‘s new article, “Vanishing Voices” by Russ Rymer. It’s an elegant and fascinating read that explores many of the questions surrounding endangered languages: why do some small languages die, while others manage to soldier steadily on? Which facets of any language are untranslatable and/or invaluable, and what insight could they offer? Why does it matter?

Rymer doesn’t answer all the questions he brings up — nobody could — but he does an excellent job of highlighting the state of the field and the many factors at play, using a complex fact- and story-based narrative. I’ve rambled about this topic before, and I can only hope to express my thoughts as cogently as he has, someday. While I come pre-equipped with vehement interest in this topic, I suspect that his article might be able to spark interest in even the most indifferent reader.

He focuses on three main groups of people, all of whom speak an endangered and/or small language: the Tuvan of Siberia, the Aka of India, and the Seri of Mexico. Read More

Why Language Preservation Matters: Success Is Not Merit

As you may know, the documentation of endangered languages is one of my passions. Since this is not the most common pursuit, I occasionally have to explain to people why anyone should care; thus, when my brain is idle, I sometimes work on arranging my views into clearer explanations.

In a bout of insomnia last night, I decided to scribble out a response to one particular class of claims I’ve heard before, which disputes the value of language preservation. My response is very much tongue-in-cheek, but perhaps it will prove enlightening. (It contains liberal use of the word “asshole,” but rest assured that I use it purely in an academic sense.)

Why Language Preservation Matters, Part 1:
Language Dominance Depends More on Assholery than Superiority

The Allegations:

  • “Well, the best and most useful language will win. No need to go interfering with the natural order of things.”
  • “But it’s not your place to decide which languages should survive.”
  • “Look at how many people speak English. That must mean it’s an innately superior language!”

The Response:
Imagine a small group of people living in a wooded area; we’ll call them Original Group, because we are creative at naming things. Read More

On contextual language learning and science fiction

Whenever I watch or read works of science fiction, I end up paying an absurd amount of attention to how they handle languages and language learning. From the television show Dollhouses idea of imprinting human brains with a patchwork of skills and memories from strangers, to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxys Babel fish, which sits inside the ear, feeds on brain wave energy, and instantaneously translates from any heard language, science fiction finds an abundance of ways to work around the lengthy labor of real-life language learning. It’s fabulous!

Because I am a giant dork, I also muse occasionally on how these language learning technologies might actually work. Let’s take Dollhouse as an example: how could one ever extricate just language proficiency from the mesh of experiences and thoughts that underpins learning? (The answer: suspension of disbelief.)

It seems an impossible task: cultural experiences support and surround language learning. Perhaps you never understood how to use a particular inflectional affix until that fellow in a cafeteria patiently explained a joke that hinged on it. You might have learned a new word when someone served you an unidentifiable meal and you only figured out you’d eaten quail beaks when you looked it up in your dictionary afterwards. Even if you learned all your language in a classroom, you still might have strong associations with that one phrase you humorously mispronounced, to the merriment of your teacher, enough that you’ll never make that mistake again.

Even if only a few aspects of language learning have strong associations for a person, it’s still enough to create some entertaining problems for Dollhouse-style technology. No matter how carefully designed the imprint is, it seems probable that the imprintee would end up with a collection of tiny, language-linked memories from someone else’s life, which would be an unhinging sensation. (The television show explains around this problem by describing the brain-programmer as a magical boy-genius, but tell me, is he also a linguist?)

Anyhow, here are a few vocabulary examples from my own language learning, which I would be hard-pressed to separate from the experiences and memories through which I learned them:

carpa (tent): learned during a surprise trip to a Chilean circus.
pulga (flea): perhaps permanently deposited in my brain, after a stay in an Argentine hostel that left me dotted with maddening fleabites.
paro (strike): due to the weekly student protests during my stay.
pasarela (footbridge): I was given directions that involved crossing one; I accidentally bypassed it the first time, before figuring out what it meant.

Thank you for bearing with my contemplation. Do you have any examples of this from your own language learning, or any other thoughts?