Why document endangered languages? A LIPIL discussion

Martha Tsutsui recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub in London (LIPIL), a monthly informal gathering of linguists to discuss topical areas in our field.

The second Linguistics in the Pub in London (LIPIL) event was held on October 6th at The Perseverance and was attended by students and faculty from SOAS and other nearby universities. The discussion topic of the evening was “Why Document Endangered Languages?” Everyone present agreed that documenting languages was generally a good idea, but had different reasons for supporting this activity.

Throughout the discussion, common misconceptions about language loss and language documentation were brought up. Group members report finding that the general public can often be short-sighted in regards to the issue and often react with remarks and sentiments of “why bother?” In part, it is this public lack of understanding that hinders the fight for endangered languages.

There are several reasons to document endangered languages that were discussed, both ethical and research-oriented. For speakers, languages represent more than just a means of communication. Languages are an integral part of culture and identity, worthy of being preserved at the very least. Endangered languages can be important to their speakers in the areas such as traditional arts, ceremonies, religion, oral traditions, and recounting of ancestral knowledge.

People tend to have a utilitarian perspective on language loss, believing that language loss only affects a small population, but in actuality the effects of language loss are far-reaching. One member brought up how in linguistically-diverse China, the government is working with endangered language speakers to advance their interests, because language loss for even a small group can cause instability and civil unrest across a larger area. Loss of language can also lead to an increase in social and health issues. What is good for endangered language speakers is good for everyone.

Besides speakers, several fields of research are affected by language loss. Language death marks missed opportunities for discoveries and research in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, biology, psychology, archaeology, history, and others.

As linguists doing language documentation and description, we are in a position to work with speakers to assist them to preserve their culture and their voices, in a world where they may not normally have much autonomy. Contrary to the notion that languages die because no one wants to speak them, the reality is that speakers of endangered languages often feel they have no other option but to abandon their languages and adopt the majority language in order to gain a better life via economic opportunities, escape from social stigma and integration, or other means. Though speakers may have some regrets about their native languages falling out of use, often the desire for their children to have opportunities is stronger (at least initially) than the preservation of their language.

Government policy and persecution has played a crippling blow to endangered languages and the people who speak them in many places. One member brought up how Cajun French speaking students were once physically punished at school for using their native language. This scenario is historically quite common, Native American students in the late 1800s were infamously banned from speaking their languages at school, and as recently as 2014 a student in Kansas, U.S.A. was suspended for speaking Spanish at school. While Spanish is not an endangered language per se, this incident highlights negative attitudes towards minority languages and how government policy can work against minority languages by stigmatizing them and by eliminating platforms and contexts to use them in. Language documentation work can help normalise ideas of multilingualism in society, and linguists can help affect policy changes.

By documenting languages and working with speakers, we as linguists have an opportunity to create social change. LIPIL members discussed what working with endangered languages can lead to, and several ideas were discussed. One person commented how linguists documenting an endangered language can bring the resources and attention to a minority group that would normally not have the means to document their language. Many groups and individuals care about losing their languages, but lack the resources or training to properly document and describe them. Another thing linguists can do is raise awareness for the general public, and in the political domain, to change government policies. Many endangered languages are underrepresented and unacknowledged by governing bodies.

One last resonating point made was that, in the end, the study of endangered languages is the pursuit to better understand others, a worthy pursuit and a reason in its own right to want to be involved in documenting languages.

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