Mark & Steve – Dying Languages

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In this episode Steve and Mark respond to Daisuke’s request that they discuss dead or dying languages.

Mark: Hello and welcome to another edition of EnglishLingQ.

Mark here with Steve…

Steve: Hello there.

Mark: …on another grayish day here in Vancouver.

Steve: Yet another grayish day.

Mark: Yeah.

Steve: We’re not having a great summer.

Mark: Not so far.

Steve: Now, we do have, though, a request from Daisuke for us to talk about saving languages and dying languages and dead languages and that sort of thing.

We should point out that Daisuke hasn’t been very active recently.

Mark: If you’re listening, Daisuke.

Steve: If you’re listening, Daisuke, we’re responding to your question.

I’m sure you’re very busy doing other things, but we like to see our members active.

Mark: Yeah.

We just want to remind you that to get the most out of these podcasts, you should be reading them and creating links on LingQ and reviewing those links and doing all those good things so that you learn better.

Steve: I mean I can never understand why…

Mark: That goes not just for Daisuke.

Steve: Yes.

Mark: That’s for all of you.

Steve: Well, I can’t understand why people create so few links.

I’ve got 30,000 links or more in Russian alone.

I started my Korean and I’m already in second or third place for linking in Korean and I’m doing Portuguese and Russian.

It does work.

Anyway, let’s get back to languages.

Mark: Yeah.

Daisuke, he was asking, he said…I guess we can read what he said.

“Thanks for your interesting podcast.

Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists say nearly half are in danger of extinction and likely to disappear in this century.

In fact, one falls out of use about every two weeks.”

Steve: Well, I mean, I guess I have several reactions.

First of all, I must admit that I would like to see our native languages in Canada be preserved and it would be cool, I think, if the natives actually spoke those languages.

You know, I don’t know why I would like that, I just think it gives them more substance to their search for a special identity.

When I see a native who basically dresses like us, you know, speaks English like us, lives like us, other than the fact that he’s allowed to fish when we’re not, what is there, you know?

So I think a language is pretty important to someone’s identity.

So that’s one side of the picture.

The other side of the picture is we have probably been loosing languages at this rate ever since the beginning of time, because there are all kinds of languages that blend into other languages and new languages.

I mean, the languages we speak today, most of them didn’t exist 2,000-3,000 years ago in their present forms.

So, I don’t know.

What do you think?

Mark: I mean, I think it’s probably likely, too, that in this age of increased globalization, the world has grown much smaller; the Internet and mass media and so forth.

It seems likely that there isn’t as much need for all those languages.

I mean, why do people develop languages in the first place?

It’s to communicate and if you can only communicate with a very small group in your own language and that language ends up dying out for that reason, you’re unlikely to be able to force people to learn that language because the reason to learn a language is to communicate and if it’s only to communicate with a small group or in the case of, you know, the native languages, no one speaks those languages.

Steve: I know.

Mark: You can’t. It’s artificial.

Steve: Well, most people are not…I mean, I like speaking lots of languages and many of our members do, but most people just learn languages for practical reasons.

So, I mean, I was speaking to someone the other day on LingQ, one of our students, who’s originally from Guinea and she said there’s 70 or 170 languages in Guinea and that’s because there’s that many different ethnic groups…

Mark: Right.

Steve: …and that creates all kinds of political problems.

Mark: Right.

Steve: And, probably, you know, European society was like that as well at one point because people couldn’t travel very far, but probably at some point, even in Guinea, they will gradually…and it’s not because of the evil Internet, American imperialists or anything else.

I mean right now they speak French and then their native language, but they may eventually develop a common language for Guinea.

Such as, we now have common languages in, say, France or Germany or Italy; whereas, 1,000 years ago, every little village had its own language.

I agree with you.

Most people don’t like to maintain five languages, they’re quite happy with having one that serves their purpose.

And having one language for a country of 20 million people may be more useful than having one that only works for 25, so, yeah.

Mark: I mean, I think in countries where they’re trying to revive native languages, Daisuke talked about Cornish.

I don’t know anything about Cornish, other than, presumably, it was spoken in Cornwall, I don’t know, in England.

But, I’m guessing, they’re not going to have a lot of success there because England is not that big a place.

So if you speak English, you live day to day in English, you might be forced to learn Cornish in school, but it’s like one hour a week and the rest of the time you’re in English.

I just don’t see a future for a language like that.

Steve: Even in Ireland, where they have a stronger sort of sense of national identity or an attempt to differentiate themselves from the English and Irish Gaelic is taught in the schools, but I remember when I had my dust up with Benny the Irish Polyglot.

Mark: Right.

Steve: I told him that I have an Irish friend who said that very few people in Ireland speak Gaelic and he called my friend an idiot.

But, in fact, there’s this famous story about a reporter who went all around Ireland trying to find someone who was a native speaker of Gaelic.

They’re very hard to find.

Mark: Right.

Steve: And people probably know as much Gaelic, those Irish people who learned it at school, as much Gaelic as the average English-Canadian knows French…

Mark: I was just going to say, it’s the same here.

Steve: …which isn’t very much.

Mark: You’re forced to okay, we’ll study French in school, but there’s no motivation to learn it.

There’s no one to speak to so, every day, what’s important in life is in English.

Steve: Right, in Canada…

Mark: In Canada.

Steve: …for English-Canadians. That’s not the case in Quebec.

Mark: In Ireland, too.

Steve: And in Ireland, too, yeah.

Mark: Right.

Steve: But, there again, that gets sort of politically dicey because their English is the language of the English, so it’s sort of a vestige of the sort of English imperialism and colonization of Ireland and that’s all very bad.

But if you look at Cornwall, I suspect, or even in Wales, Wales has been more successful than Ireland or Cornwall and even there it’s only in certain areas where people speak the language.

Now, you can go to a different region like Catalunya in Spain, where the Catalans, in fact, do speak Catalan and I think the Basques have been more successful in resurrecting their language.

And we could argue that Hebrew in Israel is an artificial resurrection of their language.

Mark: I was just going to say, in Israel they resurrected Hebrew, but I guess they needed a language to speak to each other.

There was no common language there at the time.

Steve: Now, you could say that it might have been more practical for them at that time.

Given that you had people from North Africa, Europe, Eastern Europe, all over the place, they could have chosen English, which was the language of the mandate power of Britain at the time.

Mark: Or Arabic.

Steve: Or Arabic, but they had political reasons for wanting to resurrect that language.

So, I mean, with enough political will, you can make it happen.

Mark: Right.

Steve: Then once it becomes a meaningful language, then it survives.

Mark: Right.

Steve: The trouble we have, say, in Canada, is that there’s so many native languages and there’s no way that Tribe A is going to say okay, I’ll accept the language of Tribe B as my sort of token native language.

Either they’re going to speak English or they’re going to speak their own.

Mark: Right.

Steve: And, so, that’s the difficulty, even with Cree.

Like I think it would be neat, I’m far more interested in Canada in promoting our native languages than in promoting the language of the immigrants.

A lot of the immigrants, where they’re sufficiently, you know, numerous, they say well, we should have schools in, you know, whatever.

In the old days it would be German or Ukrainian or nowadays Chinese or Punjabi and I’m not in favor of that at all because I don’t consider those languages to be sort of indigenous to Canada.

You know Canada, when the country was formed, was English and French and we had all the different what we nowadays call First Nations Groups with their languages.

Mark: Right, yeah.

Steve: Those are the languages that I, for political reasons, would want to promote, but to promote them for political reasons you need a lot of people supporting the idea.

Mark: Yeah and I was going to say, I mean, the window of opportunity for capturing those languages is probably disappearing.

I mean there can’t be many native speakers of those languages left because the younger generations don’t speak them.

Steve: But they’re trying and, you know, all the more power to them.

It’s better this is done as sort of an initiative that really, you know, mobilizes people who want to do it because there’s a tremendous opportunity for just spending just gobs of public money on this.

All kinds of consultants creating grammar books and going and doing studies and all kinds of stuff doesn’t amount to anything, except that it employs a bunch of people and gets the NGOs all excited, but doesn’t really influence very many people.

Mark: Well, I mean that’s where I was sort of going.

The direction I was going to head when we started off here was that, for the most part, all the money and effort spent on trying to maintain or resurrect dying languages, dead or dying languages, is better spent elsewhere.

I mean, the fact is those languages died for a reason; nobody wanted to speak them.

So trying to force those languages back into fashion or into use, I mean, maybe one in 100 or 1,000, but the other 999 are just going to disappear and lots of time and effort will be expended and wasted.

Steve: Yeah.

Now, of course, you say it’s not worth it.

I say that’s a value judgment.

It may not be worth it to you, it might be worth it to some other people and, so, if a majority of people are able to persuade their politicians that that’s something they want to spend money on, then all the more power to them if they can pull it off.

Personally, I’m interested in languages and I think it would be fun to do.

I don’t think you can get a majority of people to do it.

It’s a bit like Esperanto, which sounds like a good idea, but in fact they never generated any momentum.

But every time I say anything against Esperanto on my YouTube channel, of course, I get inundated by very angry Esperanto supporters.

But the reality is that most people are not going to do that.

Mark: I mean once the language is dead or dying, it is, it’s the same as Esperanto or Klingon or any of these.

I mean it’s not a used language anymore and it’s sort of artificial.

Steve: But it is unfortunate.

Like I think it would be unfortunate if all the native languages of Canada disappeared and were never heard again.

Mark: Right.

Steve: But for them to have any of their languages survive, as you say, realistically they’d have to unite and say we’re going to maintain three languages.

Like say there are three language groups, we’re going to put all our efforts in and any native is going to have to learn Cree, even if he’s an Ojibwa or something.

Mark: Right.

Steve: But that runs into other political problems that probably would sink that idea, so, yeah.

But, I mean, there are examples.

Who knows, you know?

I mean never say never.

Mark: There’s also the argument that, you know, the natives maybe should concentrate on English, making sure their English is as good as it can be, and that will probably benefit them, at least economically, more so in the long run than focusing on what makes them different.

Steve: Possibly; although, part of the problem, you know, might be a lack of, you know, pride or self esteem or whatever.

I mean, certainly, when I go to Spain, very proud Basque speakers or Catalan speakers are absolutely fluent in Castilian Spanish.

Mark: Right.

Steve: So the one doesn’t prevent the other.

Mark: That’s true.

Steve: There are, you know, many examples of people who are perfectly fluently bilingual, so I don’t see that as a problem.

I think, personally, one of our slightly hair-brained ideas, when we started LingQ, was that LingQ would be an excellent tool to preserve these minority languages.

We don’t need to spend millions of dollars to write textbook and grammar books; instead, all we need is to get speakers to record themselves so that we could have a whole community of, you know, Cree speakers on LingQ.

Mark: Right.

Steve: I, personally, would love to have native languages on LingQ, once we get through all the other things we’re doing for more learners.

Mark: Don’t let all the people who want Czech and Dutch and Arabic know that we’ll be adding Cree next.

Steve: Ooh, where did you hear that first? No, but yeah.

Mark: I mean, I think that covers Daisuke’s question and, as always, we’re happy to have the feedback and hope you all enjoyed this podcast.

If you would like us to talk about something else, by all means, let us know on the EnglishLingQ forum.

Steve: Not that what we have is particularly useful or profound, but we do generate a lot of words so that you can go and link them.

Mark: Daisuke.

Steve: Daisuke.

Okay, bye for now.

Mark: Bye-bye.

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