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Debate: Preservation of languages

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Should governments take steps to keep their threatened languages alive?

Background and context

The globalisation of the communication industry means that minority languages around the world are increasingly under threat. There are particular versions of this problem. The first is minority languages within a particular country, examples of which are Welsh in the United Kingdom and French in Canada. The second area is the micro-languages spoken by no more than a few hundred people in small tribal groups in places like Papua New Guinea and the Amazon. These are threatened less by cultural hegemony than by the collapse of traditional ways of life. The question remains whether we can or should save the language even if we can’t protect the community. Finally, small countries often feel that their entire national language is under threat from (particularly) American cultural domination. There are distinct debates to be had on these issues with different emphases but the underlying principles are shared.

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Argument #1

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Yes

There is a value to language that cannot be reduced to the utilitarian ability to communicate with those around you. The diversity of languages is endlessly fascinating, but also contains a whole set of allusions and definitions which are bearers of knowledge. The languages of the Amazon allow the explanation of natural phenomena that are unknown and incomprehensible outside that language. Language determines the way people express themselves and, arguably, the way they think. For example, Chinese and Japanese have no past, present or future tenses. The existence of a variety of languages results in varying modes of expression and is consequently a stimulus to creativity. This is of benefit to a nation as a whole.

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No

The purpose of language is communication. You can quantify how good a language is by how many people it enables you to communicate with. We should not artificially maintain the life of a language when it is not profitable but instead should allow the market to decide whether a language survives. This case applies to a number of developing countries. Their scarce resources are better spent on the numeracy and literacy necessary for general economic development, rather than on promoting bilingualism.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Language is a type of cultural heritage. We already recognise the right of groups to preserve parts of their history by granting money for museums and the restoration of buildings of historic value. There is considerable cultural capital stored in languages. Understanding a language is often the key to appreciating the full meanings and allusions of a group’s heritage; for example, Aboriginal history is predominantly oral. Allowing a language like this to die out would cut off a people from their past.

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No

We preserve objects and buildings to enable people to explore their heritage should they chose to do so. Whilst governments should continue to offer this support, they should not be responsible for communities who cannot be bothered to sustain their language, yet maintain it is an essential means of making sense of their past. It is unfair that a community that is unwilling to continue to use its indigenous language receives state help when communities who choose to speak their language do not. Government organised preservation of a threatened language may actually harm minority groups. Firstly, linguistic minority groups who do not speak the majority language are likely to become detached from the dominant social and political discussions, continuing their marginalisation. Secondly, a government campaign will provoke resentment about the distribution of resources.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Governments have a duty to preserve endangered languages. As a government is sovereign and the bearer of our rights, it has a responsibility to every member of a polity. Preserving the cultural heritage of all members of a society, rather than just that of the majority is fundamental to multiculturalism.

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No

True multiculturalism relies on giving rights to individuals not to groups. Using funding and legislation on behalf of a particular group rather than to protect individuals establishes an in-group and out groups within a society. Promoting particular communities in this way undermines a sense of community at the correct level, the nation. When national unity is undermined, so too is individual social justice. Moreover, the risk of ethnic conflict is increased as people come to see their linguistic community rather than their nation as the bearer of their rights.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Only the government of a state is capable of sustaining such a project. Keeping a language alive requires thousands of speakers, rather than simply a few and thus is unlikely to succeed without active intervention. Only a governing body can legislate to enforce media quotas and language teaching on a wide scale. Similarly, it is unlikely many NGOs could afford projects of the necessary size and timescale.

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No

Government involvement is unnecessary. Many minority immigrant communities preserve their native languages without state support. The Urdu speaking community in Scotland is a good example of this. It is not the role of a Government to decide which languages live and which die. Limited resources would make it impossible to fund preservation programmes for all threatened languages. Local communities are the best people to decide whether or not their language should survive. Furthermore, a government should not be involved in a scheme that is likely to undermine a national identity.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Language is a central component of cultural identity. It acts as a binding force and marker of group identities. For example, the definition of “Basque” is “those who speak in the Basque tongue”. Likewise, the Roma, who have no land and no clear defining characteristics, rely on their Romany language to maintain a cultural identity. The same is true of the Orang Asli in Malaysia. By helping to forge these communities language contributes to social stability. A shared language aids social cohesion by providing speakers with a ready-made support network. This in turn has been linked with reducing feelings of social dislocation and related problems, such as crime.

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No

Language is not necessarily essential to a cultural identity. Judaism illustrates this: followers have spoken many languages throughout its history, yet a distinctive culture has endured. Social factors are the true promoters of cultural identity. South East Asia is a patchwork of different languages yet there are recognised shared values. The Basques share a number of traditions, as do the Roma. In fact, just 4 million of the World’s 10 million Gypsies speak Romany. The Roma rely on their ethnic distinctiveness, god Del and a shared tradition of horsetrading, basket weaving and potmending to unite them across national boundaries.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Once governments take steps to preserve a language the programme should become self-sustaining and therefore less expensive. The development of a native media industry is a positive by-product of introducing media quotas. Media quotas will ensure a native language reaches all aspects of society. The existence of a native media will then provide an incentive to learn the language. For example, English as a second language is strongest in Holland, where cartoons are broadcast in English.

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No

To justify spending the money of a majority on a minority when it carries the above disadvantages requires a more obvious benefit than the vague assertion it will enhance national creativity. There is a risk that the most creative members of society will be locked into a minority language ghetto, rather than creating work which can be appreciated by a wider world.

See also

External links and resources

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