It is not difficult to find examples of the extinction of languages in the wake of the introduction of English. On every continent, there is some region where colonial English has apparently supplanted or wiped out the indigenous linguistic forms. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that languages are going extinct today at a rapid and alarming rate, coincident with the spread of English as a language of commerce.
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However, it is too narrow a view to blame the language itself for this phenomenon. Rather, it has been, and continues to be, the attitude and the means with which English has been introduced and used that has had a pernicious effect. Our ideal should be, this paper will assert, a bi- or multi-lingual globe, benefitting from the diversity of world-views embedded in different languages. Only a change in attitude, and resulting practice, will achieve that goal, and avoid further loss of linguistic richness and variety.
It is well documented, and widely accepted, that languages are going extinct with precipitous speed. Some estimates suggest that one language is being lost irretrievably every several weeks (Moffet). Some of the most active areas of extinction include the American West, where a variety of indigenous peoples from all over what is now the ‘lower 50’ states of the USA were forced to re-settle in the 1800’s (Weiss).
However, there are indeed linguistic extinctions occurring all over the world. The National Geographic Institute and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages have together identified areas of highest language extinction. These are located in Northern Australia, Central South America, the Northwest USA Pacific Plateau, Eastern Siberia, and the above noted Southwestern portion of the USA, especially the state of Oklahoma (Moffet).
What ties most of these together is the imposition/introduction of a different language. This has usually happened within the last millennium, perpetrated by a group of people wielding greater power. Such power is usually based on weapons and technology. However, the language imposed on these areas was not uniformly English.
Note that in Central Siberia, the language imposed is likely to have been Russian in most cases (Lydersen). In Central and South America, the obvious imposed language is either Spanish or Portuguese. In each of these cases, indigenous peoples were subjugated and often deliberately deracinated and demoralized as part of a take-over for political and economic gain.
The guilt of English speaking people in such linguistic extinction is just as severe, and the spread of damage is wider. However, it is not unique, as these above examples demonstrate. What is responsible is not a particular language, but a set of attitudes and intentions, all of which can be held by persons of any language background.
English ‘imperialism’ can be cited in the British Isles themselves. The suppression of Gaelic over the last several centuries has been one element in a conscious suppression of all distinctive Scottish cultural features. These included outlawing of indigenous dress, bagpipes, and weapons, among other items, as well as discrimination and relocation of large blocks of the Scots population to Northern Ireland known as the Ulster Plantation. As a tragic result, Gaelic is now spoken by less than 2% of the population (Gaelic Survival in the Balance).
Welsh is another casualty of English prejudice and suppression. The centuries-long pattern of outright racism has been so persistent that as recently as 2000, there were calls for the end of such racist behavior (BBC). The result of compensatory attempts to teach Welsh has been that now 21% of the population can speak some of the language. Welsh may be the only Celtic language that survives at all (Thomas and Gathercole).
In Australia, the suppression of indigenous languages and cultures is attested to by the peoples themselves (N.A., Languages). This type of colonial settlement is paralleled by the US pattern of crowding out and removal of indigenous peoples, or in some cases, as in the Tainos, genocidal extermination (Crawford).
In the case of the USA, children were specifically taken from their families and sent to special schools where only English was allowed to be spoken. This government policy has been so deeply toxic that a Federal law (Native American Languages Act of 1990) was passed to counteract the several generations of mistreatment (N.A., Fighting for Validity: Credentialing Native American Language Teachers).
In much more modern times, recent immigrants, especially Asian, have voluntarily suppressed their own language expression. They have done this to ‘get ahead’ and help their children to ‘get ahead’. This has occurred in places like Hawaii (Conklin), and in other communities with Asian immigrant communities.
In such cases, there may be a concomitant desire to cherish and preserve traditions and culture from the country of origin. This pattern of aspirational language suppression has resulted in partial loss of linguistic facility, even when an effort is made to teach the mother tongue to the next generation. This is termed “heritage language attrition” (Hinton).
The current generation of young people all over the world largely has access to the internet, where the language most used is English. The assertion is made that global use of English on the internet causes the loss of minority languages (Fuller). On the other hand, this same source notes that technology can be harnessed to document and preserve vanishing languages (Fuller).
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Crawford identifies several factors that can cause language loss: demography (migration), economic opportunities open only to speakers of the dominant language, mass media that carries with it the stamp of desirability, and social aspiration (Crawford). These, factors can operate, it should be noted, when any language, not just English, is associated with what people want or think they need.
More insidious perhaps are value shifts, which can occur in the contact of indigenous cultures with the dominant global industrialized culture. Crawford identifies individualism, pragmatism, and materialism as antithetical to the valuing of a heritage language (Crawford). Of course, these represent the stereotypical values that are popularly associated worldwide with irreligiousness, and breakdown of family values. Again, these are not uniquely tied to English as a language.
The problem, rather, is the assumption on the part of English speakers, or speakers of any language associated with empire, that they have the right to impose anything of their culture on others. This cultural arrogance causes trouble. It is cultural arrogance, spread globally via merchandising and the internet, which contributes to language loss.
There is much evidence that bilingualism is a healthy and positive state of being (Wenner). It is also notably undervalued in the USA and Great Britain, as popular strereotypes confirm.
Note that great empires such as those of the Romans and Persians functioned well without overtly suppressing indigenous languages, and in fact, used third languages (Greek, and Aramaic, for example) to operate and succeed for generations (N.A., Culture). This suggests that such tragic linguistic obliteration as we have seen in the Americas, the British Isles, and Australasia, among many other places, is largely unnecessary.
While linguistic attrition (as opposed to obliteration) may be inevitable to some extent as a result of voluntary adoption of another language, a deep change in attitude could help preserve those languages we still have on this earth. Valuing bilingualism can help. This is a very simple statement with vast implications beyond the scope of this paper.
However, rather than vilifying one language, changing the way we regard each other, might be far more constructive in preserving linguistic diversity. The question of prestige has been identified as key to the successful creation and maintenance of a truly bilingual community: we all need to accord one another respect to make this happen (Chapel, Castelló and Bernard).
Finally, having a common language in which to engage in commerce has contributed to peace and prosperity in various places and times in the past (N.A., Culture). Should our goal not be to retain as many of our diverse languages as we can while sharing a common one (perhaps English, perhaps not) in which to deal with each other peacefully?
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