The linguistic diversity of our species is under extreme stress, as are the communities who speak increasingly endangered speech forms. Of the world’s living languages, currently numbering around 7,000, around half will cease to be spoken as everyday vernaculars by the end of this century.
For communities around the world, local languages function as vehicles for the transmission of unique traditional knowledge and cultural heritage that become threatened when elders die and livelihoods are disrupted. As globalisation and rapid socio-economic change exert complex pressures on smaller communities, cultural and linguistic diversity is being transformed through assimilation to more dominant ways of life.
In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages to help promote and protect Indigenous languages. This celebration of linguistic vitality and resilience is welcome, but is it enough? And in an increasingly and often uncomfortably interconnected world, what is the role for the ‘heritage’ languages that migrants bring with them when they move and settle in new places?
In this richly illustrated lecture, I will draw on contemporary examples from North America, Asia and Europe to explore the enduring importance and compelling value of linguistic diversity in the 21st century.
Dr. Mark Turin is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and First Nations Languages at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Trained in anthropology and linguistics, he has worked in collaborative partnership with Indigenous peoples in the Himalayas for over 20 years and more recently with First Nations communities in the Pacific Northwest. He is a committed advocate for the enduring role of Indigenous and minority languages, online, in print and on air through his BBC radio series.
If you wish to attend this event, please RSVP here on Eventbrite
March 06, 2019 at 7:00pm
Italian Cultural Centre - Museum & Art Gallery - (3075 Slocan St, Vancouver, BC V5M 3E4)
A Caption of Dr. Mark Turin’s “Rising Voices: Linguistic Diversity in a Globalized World”
Our March 6th event featured Dr. Mark Turin’s “Rising Voices: Linguistic Diversity in a Globalized World”. It was well-attended despite the sleet and cold weather, with approximately 50 people in attendance, including both the Cultural Attaché and the Education Officer from the Consulate General of Italy in Vancouver. Our reception was deliciously catered by ARPICO.
Dr. Turin’s presentation was informative, engaging, and poignant. Linguistic diversity is under extraordinary stress given that approximately 50% of the world’s 7000 living languages will cease to be spoken by the end of the century. Both linguistic and cultural diversity are being transformed through assimilation to more dominant ways of life as rapid socio-economic change and globalization exert complex pressures on small communities.
The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2019 to be the International Year of Indigenous Languages in order to help protect and promote indigenous languages. While this declaration is not a solution, it does acknowledge the precarious situation of many of the world’s languages.
According to UNESCO, 97% of the world’s people speak only 4% of the world’s languages. Local languages serve as vehicles for the transmission of both cultural heritage and unique traditional knowledge that become at risk of extinction when elders die and livelihoods are disrupted. As populations learn more dominant languages at the expense of local languages, communities undergo “language shift” and many of these local languages subsequently become at risk of linguicide: when a language dies as a result of the cessation of intergeneral transmission.
Frequently, linguicide will frequently occur when younger generations enroll in state-run schools where classes are taught in the national language(s) as opposed to the local one, serving as a tool - unintended or not - of alienation. Local, ancestral languages become sources of shame as they symbolize agrarian roots, arguably humbler origins than those of many city dwellers, and more generally, the past. The most obvious way to counter these effects is to teach in local languages as opposed to or in addition to national language(s). A less obvious but equally important countermeasure is to restructure the curricula to incorporate more locally relevant and important concepts. For example, using locally relevant occupations such as “farmer” or “shaman” when teaching maths, languages, science, etc.
Many of these local languages are spoken in areas of extraordinary biodiversity. In fact, there is a strong correlation between biodiversity and both cultural and linguistic diversity. For example, 1 in every 6 languages in spoken in the Himalayan Mountain Chain. Additionally, there is more linguistic variation in areas where local populations do not express any affiliation to mainstream religions.
Dr. Turin’s own research was used as a case study for these claims. He spent a decade learning and creating a dictionary for the Thami language, with the help and cooperation of the local community. The Thami people (known locally as Thangmi) are an indigenous community located east of Kathmandu, and have an approximate population of 30 000 people. The most common local occupation is stone quarrying . Prior to Dr. Turin’s time there, the Thami language had no written form. Today, it uses the Nepalese alphabet for the sake of ease. Following Dr. Turin’s publishing of the first English-Thami dictionary, the local community published their own trilingual (Thami, Nepalese, and English) dictionary, and subsequently, the first dictionary solely in the Thami language. Books have since been published in Thami locally, and Nepalese academic curricula has been made locally relevant and then published in Thami. As a result, more Thami children enroll and remain in school.
Why do indigenous languages matter when the main goal of language is to be understood? They matter for many reasons. As we have learned, culture and traditional knowledge is passed through these languages, and many things and concepts do not have literal/direct translations in other languages. Additionally, when indigenous communities maintain their local languages, we see suicide rates disappear. This apparent causal link is because these languages signify close-knit community ties and high rates of a sense of belonging.