Swan songs in each tongue

Language Death

September 1, 2000

Is English forcing languages into extinction? asks Raphael Salkie

While David Crystal was writing this book, half a dozen languages became extinct. More exactly, their last remaining speakers died, and took to the grave a particular complex pattern of oral traditions and cultural expressions - in other words, a unique way of being human. By some estimates, all but a few hundred of the 6,000 or so languages in the world are in danger of dying out over the next hundred years. The parallels with plant and animal species are striking, and Crystal believes that diversity is just as important in language as it is in biology. He argues that the disappearance of so many languages would be a grievous loss for humankind. We need to take action to prevent it, he writes.

This is the most personal and passionate of the many excellent books about language that Crystal has written in the past two decades. He has seen a catastrophe unfolding, and he wants us to join the small band of people who are working to avert it. Sadly, I suspect that his appeal will fail, largely because his book is based on assumptions that are themselves causes of the problem. One language that is not in danger of dying out is English. The British Empire and, more recently, American economic and cultural dominance have made English a popular language all over the world.Surprisingly, Crystal denies that the growth of English is connected to the fragility of other languages. If everyone becomes bilingual in English and what he calls "their own ethnic language", this would be desirable:

"because the two languages have different purposes, one for identity, the other for intelligibility - they do not have to be in conflict."

The assumption is that international English is ethnically neutral. This is not so: as English spreads, so do British and American interests. The British Council, at the forefront in promoting these interests along with language teaching, explicitly links English with "Britain's cultural achievements, social values and business aims". In many third world countries, local languages are associated for many people with poverty and misery. English is the language of prosperity, foreign travel and all the privilege that they see in adverts and in Hollywood movies. As long as these inequalities persist, people will have negative attitudes towards "their own ethnic language". Crystal advises speakers of endangered languages to use them in community settings such as town halls, as well as for story telling and religious rituals. He concedes that this is hard work with no guarantee of success. If young people are given a choice between a well-marketed Hollywood film and a presenter offering folk-tales in their indigenous language, they are likely to prefer the former. Perhaps the most pernicious thing about the spread of English is the way culture is made into a commodity, becoming something that you pay for and that is then delivered to you from elsewhere, rather than a living part of the community to which everyone can contribute. Far from being removed from these problems, the globalisation of English is part of this worldwide cultural impoverishment, one that goes hand in hand with increased economic inequality. Many thoughtful people in the third world see this and would be outraged at the suggestion that English is neutral.

If Crystal's call to action is problematic, is there a better one? A more promising rallying call is "linguistic human rights" - the rights of language communities to use whichever language they choose, particularly in schools and when they interact with public bodies. When the Council of Europe proposed a European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 1992, the United Kingdom was one of three countries that abstained. This is not good enough. We must pressure our government to take linguistic inequality seriously, and we must support campaigns that promote linguistic fairness. This strategy must be combined with new ways of promoting multilingualism, which Crystal of course supports. Crystal's approach, which assumes the continuing dominance of a few European languages, can only alienate non-Europeans. If we see language death as the extreme result of linguistic inequality, we can move forward.

Raphael Salkie is principal lecturer in language studies, University of Brighton.

Language Death

Author - David Crystal
ISBN - 0 521 65321 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £12.95
Pages - 181

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