Languages in the News (from RNLD’s Felicity Houwen)

After the recent LIP discussion about languages in the popular media we decided to take a look at the way indigenous and endangered languages are represented in the press. Looking through the articles listed on the Languages in the News page on RNLD’s website (www.rnld.org/news) we focused on how Indigenous languages are represented, and what kind of themes, languages, and locations gain media attention. This will be useful in planning how we can better use the media in the future. Here is an overview of the Languages in the News 2011.

So far this year the Languages in the News page on RNLD’s website has listed 567 online articles about endangered languages and related topics. Sources range from the New York Times to the Pilbara Echo, from the Vancouver Sun to the Taipei Times, with languages from all over the globe represented.

Almost 20% of those articles concern Australia’s Indigenous languages: 47 articles were written about Indigenous languages in general, and 60 about individual languages. Warlpiri (5), Noongar (5) and Yanyuwa (4) were the most frequently discussed, followed by Luritja, Gumbaynggir, and Warungu with three articles each. Another 27 languages were represented including Kaurna, Wirangu, Manjiljarra and Bilinarra.

North American Indigenous languages were the most represented in this survey with 40 general articles, and 123 about individual languages or a selection of languages. Cherokee (12), Ojibwe (9), and Wampanoag (8) were mentioned most frequently, followed closely by Cree (7), Lakota (6), Navajo (5) and Inupiaq (5). 60 other languages were also represented.

Perhaps surprisingly, Nigerian indigenous languages were discussed in 18 articles, primarily regarding the vulnerability of these languages and the way this is perceived as relating to Nigeria’s development as a country, and the success of the Festival of Indigenous African language Films (FIAF) that was held in October. This figure may demonstrate effective links between language advocates and the Nigerian media.

Languages from the United Kingdom were also popular topics, with 15 articles about Gaelic, 10 concerning Welsh, 7 about Irish, and a single article about Manx, from the Isle of Man. Other languages written about were from around the world including Laz (Turkey), Seediq (Taiwan), Romeyka (Greece), Huilliche (Chile) as well as Sierra Leone’s languages, Peruvian languages, Pakistani languages, and languages from the Andaman Islands.

Two main themes separate the articles: the threat of globalisation and its effect on indigenous languages around the world, and the ongoing repairs to the damages of colonization on indigenous languages and cultures. The tone of these articles swings between optimistic, and proactive, to forewarning and anger. Fears about the danger of globalisation have been expressed about languages from Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Botswana, South Africa, Chile and the Phillipines, amongst others.

Several articles were about particular projects that are working to sustain endangered languages: dictionaries being released, immersion programs at schools, acquisition of funding, or simply the success of a new class. These articles tend to focus on Australian or North American indigenous languages and often more broadly address the state of indigenous languages and the failure of governments to protect these languages.

Another common thread is the journalists’ use of the same ‘statistics’, or clichés about language endangerment with little evidence to support the assertions. Articles repeatedly use some version of the following lines: ‘It is estimated that half of the 6,000 recorded languages will vanish in the next 50 years.’ Or ‘A language dies every two weeks’.

Overall, we can see that languages are making it into the news, but there are clearly more opportunities to increase our impact by sending out information about projects that are happening. As we have said previously, establishing relationships with journalists can be useful, and we should try to improve on sending out media releases about recent activities. We will do a follow up analysis at the end of 2012 and see if anything has changed. With a bit of effort there should be even more articles about the great work being done on indigenous languages around the world!

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