Bangkok Post. 18 November 2007.
KEEPING LANGUAGES ALIVE
The world’s diverse languages should be spoken, celebrated, and preserved, writes SHELDON SHAEFFER (pic above).
Not a week passes without the report of a species – ranging from Bornean orangutans to Australian spiders – being threatened, endangered, or newly extinct. Large amounts of resources, both human and financial, and considerable passion, of both environmentalists and developers, are expended in the fight over whether to save the species or let it die. The preservation of biodiversity, seen as essential for a sustainable future, has become a major battleground of this century.
If only so much passion were devoted to another kind of diversity – that of languages and cultures! For languages – and the cultures they transmit – are in serious trouble. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s people speak only 4% of the world’s languages, which means that only 3% of the world’s people speak 96% of its languages.
In 1992, the linguist Michael Krauss predicted that, if nothing were done, 90 percent of the world’s 6,000 or so living languages (1/3 of which are in Asia) would become extinct over the next hundred years. Fifty percent of these he classified as “moribund” (where the language is not being taught to or learned by children of the language group) and another 40% as “endangered” (where the conditions exist that, if not changed, will result in the language not being passed on to the next generation). Thus, only 10% of the world’s total languages can be reasonably classified as “safe” – in other words, languages which have very large numbers of speakers and official state support. Linguistic and cultural diversity is under serious threat around the world.
“If nothing is done” is the key phrase here. If nothing is done, these languages and their cultures will die; the result will be an unprecedented loss of linguistic and cultural diversity over the course of this century. But what actually is lost – not only to scholars but also to the world as a whole? Since every language has within it a unique world view and culture, when it dies, we lose something which can never be replaced – among other things, of course, traditional knowledge, history and wisdom.
The world’s small ethnic minority language communities represent a relatively large percentage of the worlds illiterate population. Why? In part, because ethnic minorities are frequently marginalised from the mainstream of their nation’s social, economic and political life and institutions. They are allowed into that mainstream life – if at all – only by leaving behind their own ethnic and linguistic identity and taking on the language and culture of the dominant society. This is not a new process. It is the long, well-known, well-documented, and sad history of minority communities throughout the world.
This history is happening now in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Linguists estimate that over 70 languages (not dialects, by most definitions) are spoken in Thailand (with hundreds more in the other nations of ASEAN), and that perhaps up to 50% of children in Thailand do not speak standard Thai as a mother tongue at home. But few recognise these facts and fewer still are willing to see such diversity as a source of richness rather than of confusion, as an opportunity rather than a problem. And very few understand that official recognition of, and support to, minority languages (rather than their neglect and even suppression) can help to raise the prestige of the government among minority communities and thus enhance (rather than subvert) their loyalty to the nation.
But to ensure that language remains the “strength” of ethnic minorities, their languages must often be further developed or revitalised to save them from extinction. Another noted linguist, Eric Crystal, suggests several steps to be taken to protect languages from extinction For example, an endangered language will develop if its speakers can increase their prestige within the dominant community, increase their wealth relative to the dominant community, and increase their legitimate power in the eyes of the dominant community. Even more important, perhaps, are the ability of the speakers of the language to be able to write their language down and a strong presence of the language in the education system. In other words, it is essential to ensure that the only schooling experience of children who speak a minority language is not in a language they do not speak and often cannot understand.
Education systems therefore play a critical role in whether languages become extinct – or are able to survive and thrive. Because the education systems of nation-states reflect the values and aspirations of the dominant society, the ethnic minority children encounter a major barrier to their participation in the life of the nation when they arrive at the door of their school. Most formal education systems, in fact, are inappropriate for, or even hostile to, indigenous groups and their languages. This is especially true in relation to the use of such languages in school. In many countries of the world, in fact, mother tongues are forbidden to be spoken in the classroom.
It is therefore critical, both for cultural and linguistic development and for academic achievement (including mastery of the national language and of international language) that early education and initial literacy – even for adults – be conducted in the learners first language or mother tongue. There are many reasons for this. Among others, the science of learning asserts that it is necessary to begin school from where the learners are; the starting point of learning how to read and write is the language spoken and understood by the learner – in other words, begin with the known and move to the unknown. More practically speaking, it is impossible to teach the majority of children how to read and write in a language they do not understand.
The results of research overwhelmingly support bilingualism or multilingualism. A recent study by the International Institute for Educational Planning of UNESCO in Paris showed that a strategy of bilingualism produces better learning outcomes and higher rates of internal efficiency in schools; that using the language understood by learners as the medium of instruction not only builds trust, initiative, and participation in the learning process but also promotes participatory teaching method; that encouraging the use of an (ethnic) language as the medium of instruction stimulates the production of school and cultural materials in that language, broadens the body of knowledge to be learned to include local knowledge, and facilitates learners integration into national social and cultural life; and, most importantly, that education in local languages can contribute very much at the political level to improving relations between national political leaders and the base of the societys multilingual population.
Papua New Guinea, not a rich country by any means, is particularly famous for both its biodiversity, with exotic new species found every year, and its cultural and linguistic diversity, with over eight hundred languages spoken both, no doubt, because of its unique geography of isolated mountain valleys and small islands. Yet Papua New Guinea is able to provide initial literacy in the first three years of primary education in over 400 languages. More and more countries in the Asia and Pacific region are making a similar effort, in far less challenging contexts. The net result, I would argue, will be greater mastery of both mother tongues and, eventually, national and international languages and revitalised ethnic minorities communities, more able to play their appropriate role in supporting and enriching the nation as a whole.
Note: Dr. Sheldon Shaeffer is currently Director of UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, located in Bangkok. A citizen of Canada, he was educated in history (B.A.), anthropology (M.A.), and comparative international education (Ph.D.) at Stanford University. He has taught, done research, and worked in development programmes in Southeast Asia for over 20 years – as a high school teacher in Malaysia, as an anthropologist and an education programme officer for the Ford Foundation in Indonesia, and as the regional education advisor for UNICEF in Bangkok. He was also for 10 years the Director of Education and Population Programmes for the International Development Research Centre in Canada and later was a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Educational Planning (UNESCO) in Paris. Before moving back to Bangkok over six years ago, he was chief of UNICEF’s global education programme in New York.