Xsac5002 why or how languages die
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XSAC5002: Why (or How) Languages Die. Some Preliminary Questions. Do you know any of these languages and dialects? - Yaegl - Wiradjuri - Puyuma - Tsou - Bantik - Twi. What is a language???. What is a language?. Is this a language?? Is this a language?

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XSAC5002: Why (or How) Languages Die

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Xsac5002 why or how languages die

XSAC5002: Why (or How) Languages Die

Some preliminary questions

Some Preliminary Questions

  • Do you know any of these languages and dialects?-Yaegl-Wiradjuri-Puyuma-Tsou-Bantik-Twi

What is a language

What is a language???

What is a language1

What is a language?

  • Is this a language??

  • Is this a language?

  • Does it change over time? If so, who brings about said change?



  • How can we determine linguistic diversity?

  • Cultural aspects?-Social Darwinism in effect?-The English language’s world domination

  • Historical aspects?-Colonialism-Violence

  • What about politics?-Globalisationand neo-liberalism: the 21st Century scapegoat-Role of administrative languages

  • But why should we care about some seldom spoken gobbledegook?

  • Any resistance against the death of languages?-L’Academiefrancaise. The French and their adoration of… French-Polyglot universities-Master-Apprentice language acquisition programmes

  • The part where I conclude this talk with some conclusions and future implications

Movie time

Movie Time!!!

  • Extracts from ‘The Linguists’ (2008)


Indicators of linguistic diversity

Indicators of Linguistic Diversity

  • Is there a translated version of the Bible in the language? -Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL): ~850 languages, 1200 cumulative. But most languages are yet to have complete translations of the scriptures

  • How many people are known to speak the language? Are these people clustered or scattered globally?-90% of the global population speaks the 100 most used languages, based on SIL’s database

Indicators of linguistic diversity1

Indicators of Linguistic Diversity

  • Wurm (1998: referenced in Crystal 2000)’s five-tier system of endangered language classification1) Potentially endangered2) Endangered3) Seriously endangered4) Moribund5) Extinct

  • Classification “advances” from 1) to 5) depending on the number of alive speakers, their age and any signs of intergenerational knowledge transfer

Xsac5002 why or how languages die


  • Just because many people speak a language, that does not always guarantee its future.-Vanuatu: each indigenous dialect has no more than 3,000 speakers but are largely kept intact-On the other hand, Micronesia’s two languages most likely to be extinct are Chamorro (~60,000 users) and Sonsorolese (~300 people)

  • Correlation between grammatical complexity and language use? Do isolation and complexity go hand in hand?

Cultural aspects

Cultural Aspects

  • TehInterweb and slang-Why are the majority of commonly used memes in English? -Internet: an American invention-”LOL 1337 5P34K”-Social Darwinism: only the strong memes survive

  • Academia: English against the world-Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxbridge, Stanford, MIT and Caltech: all based in English-speaking countries.-Universities in non-English speaking countries are being pressured as a result to publish articles in English, in order to be recognised in academic conferences (Altbach 2007)

Cultural aspects1

Cultural Aspects

  • Economic growth, done mostly under “Western” terms-IMF? World Bank?-Washington consensus. Why not one in Beijing or Singapore?-Trade negotiations. With which country do other nations usually hold trade talks? And what is the official language of said country?

  • The United Nations has six working languages of 2.8 billion total speakers

Historical elements

Historical Elements

  • Wars and violence-El Salvador, 1932: a peasant revolt resulted in the death of 25,000 Indians, causing a “language-cide” as indigenous people became reluctant to speak their mother tongue-Genocide of the Ubykh people during the 1860s by Russia-Japanese occupation of Korea, 1910-1945: Korean alphabet banned in schools and public venues

Historical elements1

Historical Elements

  • English almost became “extinct”: how languages don’t die but survive -Royals spoke French, peasants used Old/Middle English-Gradual incorporation of mostly Latin, French and German words into the English lexicon-Adapted to historical trends-Anecdotal evidence of nannies speaking in English to royal children, who then continued to speak it throughout their lives

  • The importance of sustaining languages through generations!

Political causes

Political Causes

  • Reduced network externalities; the fewer people use a language, it becomes less ‘relevant’ for future generations

  • For multi-ethnic countries seeking racial harmony, administrative languages can be promoted aggressively, to the extent where government efforts endanger indigenous dialects

  • Immigration. Is diversity “at war” with national identity and homogeneity? Will too much heterogeneity and integration lead to cultural monotony?

Political causes1

Political Causes

Source: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004898.html

Xsac5002 why or how languages die

Place de la Bastille, moments after Francois Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy in the French Presidential elections. Mais où est le drapeau tricolore ?

Political causes2

Political Causes

  • Migrants and their language acquisition abilities-Can people be fluent in their mother tongue as well as the official language in their new home?

  • Case 1: Retains mother tongue, but little to no competency in new country’s migrant language

  • Case 2: The inverse of Case 1 (fluent in new language, faces difficulty with mother tongue)

  • You might be either too young to learn your mother tongue or too late to pick up a new language (Esser 2008)

  • From personal experience (born in South Korea, grew up in New Zealand): not only do cognitive developments matter, but also the environment in which children grow. Are their parents conducive to language acquisition?

So why bother

So why bother???

Despite what the tale of Babel suggested, linguistic diversity is not evil!

  • Potential benefits of local knowledge-Inuit people and resource management in the Arctic

  • Correlation between linguistic diversity and biodiversity-Many indigenous people live in geographic isolation-So if people are being dispersed, then what is happening to their former livelihoods?

So why bother1

So why bother???

  • Languages as gateway-Bantik (an indigenous Indonesian language) is only spoken by and to men. Women seldom speak or know how to use Bantik-Cia-Cia (once again, another indigenous Indonesian language) is only spoken. Its speakers have explored various options to find a supplement for writing (Wolio language, the Korean alphabet…)

So why bother2

So why bother???

  • Language-specific phrases:“L’espritdansl’escalier”“호랑이 담배필때~”

  • Literature? Human expression?

  • A medium for one’s culture, livelihoods and ideas

Restoring endangered languages

Restoring Endangered Languages

  • Institutions undertaking work in preserving languages1) Recording/compiling data-The Rosetta Project2) Teaching ‘exotic’ languages-ANU teaches Sanskrit!-Universities that teach 30+ languages: INALCO, SOAS, HUFS, MGIMO-Even then, indigenous languages are rarely taught

Restoring endangered languages1

Restoring Endangered Languages

  • L’Academiefrancaise: love/hate of la langue de Molière-The French language’s linguistic supremacy… whose victims have been Breton, Béarnaise, Basque, Catalan and other local dialects-Annual dictionary of the French language, an almanac of “pure French”-Abhorrence of “anglicismes”? E-mail as “courriel”-Décret du 3 juillet 1996: Legal obligation to write exclusively in French for all government documents, initiatives to enrich the language.

Restoring endangered languages2

Restoring Endangered Languages

  • Master-Apprentice Language Acquisition Programme-A simple goal: bring new speakers. Go beyond the documentation-Mentor programme between an Elder/Master with sufficient command of an indigenous language to teach one Student/Apprentice intensively, ranging from 20 to 40 hours/week-In Australia:“Training the Trainers” programme



  • Who is to blame? The U.S.? Our collective ignorance?

  • …Or are some languages more “equal” than others?

  • Language as a gateway into culture

  • The 21st Century and beyond: convergence-diversity paradigm

  • Should we only let ‘strong’ languages survive, or embrace diversity even though it may be an “artificial” process?

  • Indigenous languages and their stigma

Further viewing reading

Further Viewing & Reading

  • The Linguists (2008), a documentary.

  • ‘Reclaiming Indigenous Languages’ – talk given by Leanne Hinton at ANU, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVjbmjTYU6M

  • Philip G. Altbach. ‘The Imperial Tongue: English as the Dominating Academic Language’ (2007), http://www.jstor.org/stable/40276356

  • David Crystal. ‘Language Death’ (2000)

  • HartmutEsser. ‘Language acquisition and age at immigration: The difficult conditions for bilingualism’ (2008), http://www.iza.org/conference_files/AMM_2008/esser_h1665.pdf

  • Claude Hagège. ‘On the Death and Life of Languages’ (2002)

  • Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine. ‘Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of World’s Languages’ (2000)

  • http://indigenoustweets.blogspot.com.au/2011/12/1000-languages-on-web.html

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