Original URL: http://www.usatoday.com/travel/vacations/destinations/2003/2003-09-12-languages.htm

Journalist lends an ear to endangered languages

USA Today 09/11/2003 

Determined to hear some of those fading voices before they are lost in a deafening roar of globalization, Canadian journalist Mark Abley tracked minority tongues from northern Australia to southern France — and chronicles his quest in a new book, Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages (Houghton Mifflin, $24). Here, he shares some of his worries, and hopes, with USA TODAY's Laura Bly.

Q: What are some of the parallels between the extinction of a biological species and a language? What do we lose?

A: Animals, plants and human languages have all developed over time, to fit a particular niche in the wild or human environment. In each case, the danger of extinction is now greater than ever before, (though) languages are disappearing at an even faster rate than animal species. These extinctions may mean the loss of various practical benefits. One example would be potential cures for sicknesses that depend on particular rainforest plants — knowledge of which exists only in rare languages. If we lose the language, or the rainforest, we lose the cure too.

Q: What role do travelers play? Can "ethnotourism" have the same positive effect that ecotourism has had?

A: I think it's a two-edged sword. If tourists bring in economic benefits that allow poor countries to develop at their own pace, without ruining the environment, that can be helpful for minority languages and cultures just as it is for many species of wildlife.

On the other hand, tourists often make other people painfully aware of their own poverty, their own marginal status. No matter where you live, you want to feel valuable — not merely picturesque.

Q: You argue that one of the challenges shared by most endangered languages is resisting the demands of a majority tongue. But doesn't a shared language make communication and commerce easier, especially in a technology-driven world?

A: True, up to a point. But ease of communication doesn't necessarily make for peace and tranquility. Look at Northern Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics both speak English. Look at the Arab world, where the use of Arabic sure doesn't make for instant harmony. In Africa, the two countries with just about the lowest amount of language diversity are Somalia and Rwanda — both of them destroyed by civil war in the '90s.

Q: Obscure languages aren't the only ones being threatened by a global economy.

A: That's right. If you look at Europe, even well-known national languages like Dutch and Danish are now at risk of being swept aside by the overwhelming power of English. And in Asia, the Tibetan language is at risk because of the weight of Chinese — although politics has more to do with that than economics.

Q: You write that governments often use minority languages as political tools.

A: Ireland is a classic case of a government that set out to save a language in the wrong way. When Ireland gained its independence from Britain in the 1920s, the government wanted to promote Irish Gaelic. They made knowledge of Gaelic compulsory for high school diplomas and civil-service jobs. They turned Gaelic into a bureaucratic chore. No wonder young people fled the language.

A happier example would be the revival of Maori going on in New Zealand now. The Maori people themselves decided it was urgent to hold onto their traditional language. But by promoting bilingualism from early childhood on, and by making the Maori language and culture something that all New Zealanders can take pride in, the government has acted very wisely.

Q: But you also say that bilingualism can also be a danger for a minority language. How?

A: The danger comes when the speakers of a small language start to associate their traditional tongue with a few domains of life — religion and grandparents, let's say — while speaking English or some other big language at work, at school and at play.

Q: Where did you find the most encouraging evidence of linguistic vitality?

A: In Wales, surprisingly enough. And I say "surprising" because Wales not only sits right next door to the home of the English language, it has also been ruled by England for more than 700 years. But today, more than half a million people are fluent in Welsh. There's a TV channel that broadcasts in Welsh. There are radio stations ... rock albums, soap operas and erotic novels in the language. It simply refuses to die!

Q: What languages do you speak?

A: The only ones I'm fluent in are English and French; I speak very basic German, Spanish and Welsh.