endangered languages

“We can have rooms full of dictionaries, but if no one speaks the language, what good will it have been.” Onowa McIvor made this statement about the dominance of documentation in the indigenous language field at the recent annual conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. I attended the conference a couple weeks ago and will talk about it in my next few posts here.

One could replace dominance above with fetishization, I think, and not be far off. The field tends to be populated with an alliance of community activists and linguists, not to mention the SIL, which serves as a front for evangelical missionary work. This alliance treats language a more or less unchanging substance laminated to culture, here defined as tradition, and to personal identity. The problem with this position is that it has largely inhibited the development of indigenous media and, as McIvor points out, a broad view of literacy and communicative practice. In Taiwan, the analogue to such alliances would likely include the testing regime. Indeed, we could have an entire room of people who can pass the mother tongue test but not have speakers of the language. For McIvor, the question is broadly of political will; Canada’s aboriginal languages have not developed the public registers or currency of French or English because none of the aboriginal languages are “co-official.” But making these languages co-official is not just a problem of the government. It requires a society wide shift, in which members of Anglophone and Francophone communities demand that aboriginal languages be made co-official: members of the dominant community must see maintenance and the currency of aboriginal languages as a public value. In many ways, this problem is very similar to the problem facing Taiwanese indigenous languages. As I have argued in other places, neither the testing regime nor public multilingualism of Taiwan Railways Corporation or Taipei Metro sort will create new speakers of Taiwanese indigenous languages. The task is really to create a post-Chinese society, one in which indigenous languages can become languages of official business, schooling, and public places in indigenous districts. What this would mean is a Taitung County in which Mandarin became subordinate to indigenous languages. Farfetched? Maybe, maybe not. It is a question of political will.

During the conference, a set of questions surrounding language and education, language and public health, bureaucracy and auditing culture, assessment, and revitalization appeared in nearly every panel.

First, It was inspiring to see that immersion programs do not hold students back and that students who have been in immersion programs in their heritage languages and who have developed literacy in these languages generally do better in coursework in national languages. The correlation between participation in native language programs and later academic success among Canada’s Aboriginal, First Nations, and Métis people is well-documented and should be part of the evidence language activists and others employ when approaching schools and parents. Nonetheless, I hope that we don’t fetishize language here: it is likely that the correlation actually measures parental involvement. Because parents choose to place their children in immersion programs, they likely are more engaged with their children’s education generally and work to provide an environment rich in stimulation that will cause their children to grow intellectually. Still, it’s good research to have in one’s pocket. Secondly, communities in which the native language is still spoken are less apt to have a variety of mental and other health problems. Here, as above, the research suggests that maintenance of a native language correlates with community integration and pride. Overall, positive correlations between maintenance of native languages, better health, and educational success are evident in the Canadian data. From a Taiwanese perspective, these correlations surprise me, but there is a lack of statistical evidence to show whether these correlations would hold on Taiwan or not. I’d like to see my anecdotal evidence, which suggests that youth who speak indigenous languages fluently do not do so well academically, disproved. I also wonder if the Canadian case, in which immersion programs began after a generation or two of language lapse, tells us more about the effect of recovering indigenous languages than maintaining them

Overall, the conference discussed the need to counteract the ideology of national monolingualism. Although I agree with that assessment, I’m not sure that the ideology of multiculturalism will revivify endangered languages. On the contrary, it is far too easy in the multicultural model to treat indigenous languages as a kind of cultural supplement to the national language, further relegating indigenous languages to a traditional realm removed from the important genres of political and business language

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