Languages - a revolution

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Languages – a revolution

Jo Lateu explains why the world’s minority languages are important for all of us. We should fight to help them survive.


Keeping the language alive: only 3,500 of the 180 million people in Pakistan speak Kalasha. Here, they are teaching Kalasha a school in Brun village. People think it is the closest modern language to Ancient Sanskrit. (Rebecca Conway/Reuters)

We are standing under a picture of King Juan Carlos of Spain. Three Galicians are speaking excitedly about their language and how important it is to them. We are at the Spanish Institute in Portobello Road, London. They have a picture of the smiling King, who represents the Spanish state. But many people fighting for Galician rights, think he is the enemy.

About 2.5 million people speak Galician. So it is much more secure than most endangered languages. But it is still a minority language in Spain. The people who speak Galician live in the Autonomous Community of Galicia in northwest Spain. The problems they have trying to keep their language are similar to problems with all the other minority languages around the world: there is no official recognition and people think the language is not important because others have told them that it is not important for many years.

Xaime, Xesus and Carlos are Galicians, and they say there are two very big problems. The first problem is the Spanish state. Carlos says it wants to take over the minorities. He explains: ‘It likes the history and local customs of our region – they are good for tourism – but it wants to put the language in a “museum”.’


Xaime, Xesus and Carlos: ‘Your language makes you who you are’. (Jo Lateu)

The Galician language is popular and more people speak it now. So the state does not like it. Galician politicians cannot speak Galician in the Spanish parliament in Madrid. When two Galician MEPs spoke Galician at the European Parliament in Brussels in 2007, everyone was shocked. ‘The Spanish politicians hated it!’ Carlos smiles. He believes that big international organisations like the European Union (EU) must give opportunities to speakers of minority languages: ‘The EU gives us a chance to reduce the power of the Spanish state,’ he says.

The second big problem is the Galicians. Many of them do not see the value in speaking their own language. Xaime teaches Spanish and Galician, and he gets very tired trying to persuade his students that it is good to learn Galician. 90 per cent of Galicians speak the language, but only about 50 per cent speak it all the time. ‘Children think it is more important to speak English than Galician – a big mistake,’ he says.

‘Some Galicians hate themselves,’ Carlos adds. ‘They are ashamed of their language. But your language makes you who you are.’

Carlos is saying that our first language is more important than just a way to communicate. People who speak more than one language know that words, ideas and ways of seeing the world are not always easy to translate. A language carries a people’s history, tradition, religion and culture. If the language is lost, the way of understanding the world is lost too. And it is not just the local community that suffers. In Australia, modern Australians have learnt a lot about Australia’s geographical and geological history from the stories of the Aboriginal population. The Aborigines have lived in Australia for 50,000 years. In many of the areas of the world with most plants and animals, it is the indigenous (native) people who understand the medicinal qualities of the local plants; the knowledge is part of the names they have given the trees and plants. If we didn’t have these descriptive local words, we would not know that the berries of one bush are good for headaches, or that the leaves of another bush are good for rashes. And this is very important for modern society and drugs: about 25 per cent of drugs used now in the US came originally from botanical remedies.

Unnatural selection

Of course, languages are ‘living’. They are born, they develop, they grow and they die in a natural cycle. This has happened since our ancestors started communicating in the first original language about 150,000 years ago. This is why we don’t speak Phoenician or Etruscan now. Languages group together and change very quickly. You can see this if you listen to a group of teenagers talking: parents and teachers do not like the new words they create and their wrong grammar, but these changes are a sign that the language is healthy, not that it is dying. Different varieties of language that young people and other groups speak feed into the standard language, and make it richer. This is good for society to bring together different groups of class and race.

Some people say that we do not need to try to save languages, because they come and go as part of a natural order. But most of the world’s 7,000 languages are in danger now, and this is not natural. The threat is because of the powers some important groups have over the land, and because of inequality, poverty and globalization. Linguists believe that we are losing languages faster than ever before. And only about six languages are growing. If we do nothing, we will only have those six languages in 100 years.

Colonization and separate countries in the 18th and 19th centuries were the first stage of the situation we have today. Land was controlled and indigenous people were destroyed or forced to move away. They made the local languages illegal or punished people for using them, physically or psychologically. Sometimes the new rulers told them it is better for them to learn the new, modern language, which would give them a better life. New countries were created, often for political reasons, and this often suddenly divided language communities.


‘No language, no culture, no job, no nothing: our fate’: the Sorb community in eastern Germany take their message to Berlin. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

In the 20th and 21st centuries, millions of people have moved to towns and cities to find work. They have had to learn the language of the city or create new “pidgins” (see *What is a language?). They lost their first languages – languages survive best in the countryside. Some positive developments, like better primary-level education in the Global South, have been bad for minority languages, because they don’t teach many minority languages in schools. Many of them do not have a written form.

Governments often do not protect or promote their country’s minority languages. They are afraid that important minority groups with a different language could cause political problems. They might demand more recognition or independence. France is one country in Europe that does not want to give rights to minority languages. Maybe they have forgotten that ‘standard’ French was a minority language until the 1789 French Revolution. And also that the French Resistance helped the Allies during the Second World War by sending messages in Occitan (a language from the Pays D’Oc) to confuse the Germans.

But there have been some improvements in the past 50 years. People now see language rights more as a basic human right. The United Nations, EU and some individual countries (eg. the US, Canada, New Zealand/Aotearoa and Britain) have made new laws and declarations to defend languages. Linguists have started to quickly study endangered languages. There was a lot of interest, new books, ‘last speakers’ filmed (there are regular reports in the news about languages dying). But this is not enough, and a few linguists, including Suzanne Romaine of Oxford University have started to fight more to keep endangered languages and also bring them back to life.

If we want languages to survive, people must see them as important. We must value them and use them, especially with children. It is normal to be multilingual in most of the world. Indian children, for example, are often fluent in three or four languages, and they switch between languages when they need to, at school, with family, friends or neighbours. We must encourage this ‘active’ multilingualism: each language will have its place in a different area of people’s life. It is sad that most people in English-speaking countries think that it confuses children to bring them up with two or three languages, or stop them learning. But the opposite is true. Studies have shown that it is good for the brain to speak many languages. David Marsh of Jyväskylä University in Finland says there are many benefits eg.‘complex thinking and creativity, mental flexibility, interpersonal and communication skills, and maybe better thinking skills in old age’.

Will computers help?

Now we are in an age of social media and the internet, languages have a new opportunity to develop. Groups of people who speak the same language, but who live in different places, can communicate and make their language more important in the world. Sami, for example, has 20,000 speakers in the Arctic regions of Scandinavia and northwest Russia. It is now becoming more important because of people like Nils Rune Utsi, from Norway. She makes rap music in Sami and puts songs on YouTube. Also, Sofia Jannok, a Swedish Sami joik singer and reindeer owner uses her music to make people think about her language and the Swedish grey wolf, which is nearly extinct. And Xaime says that Galician is one of the top 20 languages used on the internet. It is also, strangely, the second-most used language on Twitter in New York - because of Brazilian immigrants who think they are tweeting in Brazilian Portuguese but are actually using Galician (‘Because,’ says Carlos, smiling, ‘Portuguese is a dialect of Galician!’)

Electronic publishing makes it possible to publish books in minority languages quite cheaply. And it might encourage writers to publish in their first language. Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o decided to write in his first language, Gikuyu, when he was a political prisoner in the late 1970s. He was arrested because he wanted Kenyans to use their own languages during the Moi dictatorship. ‘If you want to hide knowledge from an African child, put it in English or French,’ he said in a talk to the Pan-African Reading for All conference in Tanzania in 2009. Some African countries have changed because of this: in 2013 Zambia said that English would be the school language in secondary education. But before the age of 11, children will be taught using one of seven (out of 70) official local languages.

At the Spanish Institute, we talk about the difficulties of keeping a minority language alive. When I ask Xaime, Carlos and Xesus if they think people will still speak Galician in 100 years, I am surprised when they say yes.

‘Even without Brazil or Portugal it would still exist,’ says Xesus. ‘If we can get 10 per cent of young Galicians to speak the language, that will be enough to make it survive. But we need to do more. And we need role models who are Galician, not just Spanish.’

‘Galicians need to be proud of who they are,’ says Carlos.

They probably agree with linguist Dick Dauenhauer. He and his wife Nora have spent many years bringing the Tlingit language of Alaska back to life. ‘We preserve berries as jam and salmon in cans,’ he has said. ‘Books and recordings can preserve languages, but only people and communities can keep them alive.’

Good government policies, pressure from the UN and a lot of academic research will help minority languages. But this is not enough. If the people who speak the languages do not see them as important and do not see their place in modern life, they will not survive. We all have a responsibility to fight for endangered languages, to make sure that we continue to live in a world of many different living cultures. People who used to speak another language must speak it again, value it and pass it on to children. And people who don’t must learn from other languages. Every language has something to teach us.

It is time to speak up for our multilingual world. People who speak minority language must stand up and fight. Every language has something important to say.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)