Endangered Languages-Can We Really Resist Extinction?

by multilingualmania on March 17, 2011

in Bilingualism, Indigenous Languages, Language Policy, Linguistic Discrimination

Dream Doll

Linguists estimate that the world loses another endangered language about once every two weeks. While some of this language extinction is natural, much is due to what scholars call linguistic imperialism: the imposition of a majority language by a dominant group of people as a means of taking or maintaining power in a particular region. This phenomenon has taken place for centuries all over the world but for the last fifty years, globalization has sped up the process. Majority languages are squeezing out minority languages at a shocking rate, with large-scale extinctions concentrated in areas with sizable indigenous populations. In many countries where minority languages aren’t endangered, language and nationalism are still intertwined, meaning that minority languages are often heavily stigmatized, and their speakers silenced by social and political pressures.

But some minority language speakers are fighting back, using their native tongues as a tool for resisting cultural assimilation. In Bolivia, for example, indigenous anarchist leaders make a point of giving speeches in their native Aymara instead of Spanish, which is one way they protest against western, European culture. In Zimbabwe, hip-hop artists mix their tribal dialect, Ndebele, with English and in New Zealand, aboriginal rappers perform many songs in Maori. Russell A. Potter, Ph.D., termed this phenomenon “resistance vernacular,” and he wrote it about in his book, Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodern Culture, explaining that hip-hop and rap artists all over the world are rapping in minority languages or tweaking their dominant languages to reflect their resistance against mainstream culture, as is the case with many American rappers.

Resistance vernacular has been around for a while, though it hasn’t always sported such a fancy title. African slaves retained their tribal languages when shipped to new lands and they spoke, sung, and worshiped in these dialects to keep their cultures from being completely eradicated in diaspora. And at the end of the 19th century, Hawaiian women continued speaking their native language in defiance of state annexation. In his essay, “The Colonialism of the English Only Movement,” professor Donaldo Macedo argues that the modern English-only movement in the United States takes its cues from the long history of colonialism in the Americas. “The position of English-only proponents is not very different from the Portuguese colonialism that tried to eradicate the use of African languages in institutional life by inculcating Africans with myths and beliefs concerning the savage nature of their culture,” he writes.

Today, resisting linguistic colonialism may be more difficult than ever, Macedo says, which is why he calls teachers, parents, researchers, and community members together to “coalesce with the determination to not only provide quality education to linguistic minority students but also to work aggressively to dismantle the social and cultural fabric that informs, shapes, and reproduces the despair of poverty, fatalism, and hopelessness.” Macedo is referring to the United States but it is this same despair that Zimbabwe hip-hop artists are rhyming about and Bolivian activists are organizing against, using language to dismantle the very social and cultural fabric that wants to silence them.

What do you think? Will language be the protest sign of the 21st century? Can resistance vernacular save minority languages from extinction? How should we go about rescuing endangered languages and the cultures from which they come?

About the Author: Rachael Kay Albers is a freelance writer, English teacher, and theater facilitator working to educate and empower indigenous women in Central America. In her spare time, she loves to maintain and improve her bilingualism by reading novels and watching movies in Spanish.

Other Articles by Rachael Kay Albers:
The Language of Theater: Speaking in Tongues in Chalchihuitán
When Speaking Your Language is Shameful: Thoughts from Mayan Mexico
Saying Tla to English-only: How Aggressive Majority Language Policies Threaten Native Culture

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Gregor Erbach March 17, 2011 at 10:25 pm

1. The internet can help keep languages alive, by connecting speakers that are possibly not in physical contact. You find a lot of minority languages on Wikipedia, for example.
2. There is a close connection bewtween language and nation. The rise of “micro-nationalism” in places like Basque country or Catalonia also breathes new life into the languages of these regions. The splitting of nations leads to the creation of new official languages, for example Serbian and Croatian from Serbo-Croatian.
3. France has a peculiar concept of linguistic nationalism, according to which speaking the French language is a necessary condition for taking part in liberté, egalité, fraternité, and therefore has no intention of giving official language status to minority languages like Breton, Basque, or Occitan.
4. Dialects are under pressure of extinction. The Brusseleer dialect of Brussels (a Dutch dialect with influence of French) has almost died out. The regional radio stations of the German Länder (federal states) do not use the dialect of the region except in rare folkloristic emissions, and there are hardly any courses for learning to speak a dialect. If, however, the dialect is considered as a national language, as in the case of Luxemburgish, the situation changes completely. As the saying goes, “a language is a dialect with an army”.

lingi March 29, 2011 at 7:08 am

I think you´re right in your whole listing. The only fact I would doubt is No. 1. Definitely, the internet helps to connect speakers of minority languages but in many cases these people do not even have internet access, at least it can´t be taken for granted.
Expressing and induvidualizing with the aid of resistance vernacular is a great chance, I think. E.g. music has great potential helping a dialect or language to become more popular.

African Languages October 25, 2011 at 9:52 am

To prevent language extinction. we should love our own language and teach our children how to speak it. saw people go to other countries and forget where they came from..

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