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World: 'Every Time We Lose a Language, We Lose One Vision Of The World'

  • Charles Carlson

Some language specialists estimate that only 600 of the approximately 6,000 languages in the world are safe from the threat of extinction. They predict that by the end of the 21st century, the world will be dominated by a small number of major languages. In an interview with RFE/RL, David Crystal -- one of the world's foremost authorities on language -- addresses the question of what measures need to be taken to prevent the disappearance of endangered and minority languages, and what role broadcasting can play in trying to reverse this trend.

Prague, 5 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- David Crystal is one of the world's foremost authorities on language. He is the author of "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language," "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language" and "Language Death," to name a few of his works.

The latter topic -- the growing danger that many minority languages may become extinct -- is of particular interest to those concerned with issues of cultural identity.

Crystal recently spoke with RFE/RL from his home in Wales.

Question: Why does it matter whether small languages die?

Crystal: The most important reason, I think, is that language diversity is the equivalent of human diversity. I mean, the human race has been so successful on the planet because of its ability to adapt to an enormous range of circumstances. I think language is the intellectual equivalent of our biological capabilities. It's so important, first, to be able to keep our minds busy, as it were, and one of the ways in which we can do this is by seeing how each language captures a vision of the world in a different way. Every time we lose a language, we lose one vision of the world.

The second reason is that each language encapsulates the identity of a community, of a population. It is their history, it is their present sense of who they are in the world, and every time we lose an identity, then again we reduce the diversity of the world's variety.

And thirdly, of course, it's always possible, and has often been shown to be the case, that different languages have made us discover different things about the world. The way in which language talks about the world points our attention towards things that are going on in animal management, in plants, in all sorts of ways, so that we can actually make discoveries through the eyes of a people who use a particular language.

Question: At RFE/RL, we broadcast in more than 30 languages to the countries of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. Some of the languages in which we broadcast -- Belarusian, Crimean Tatar, Bashkir -- are classified by UNESCO as potentially endangered (Belarusian), endangered (Bashkir), or seriously endangered (Crimean Tatar). Can broadcasting help prevent languages from dying?

Crystal: An endangered language, a minority language, needs every friend it can get, and it needs the media as one of the main forces demonstrating to anybody who cares to listen or watch that there is an interest, a public interest, a public presence for the language. I think, in addition to radio and television, the Internet is another very important domain where one can present a language to a wider public in a way that would otherwise not be possible. I think that there actually are some clear cases of languages being helped enormously by the presence of the media.

Where I live, in Wales, is a case in point. Welsh was on its way towards disappearance in the 1960s. But in the 1970s, one of the most important developments was the arrival of a new television channel for Welsh media and broadcasting. And this really, almost by itself, turned around the fortunes of Welsh, so that people now began to see new programs [in Welsh] routinely. All the things that were available in English were now available in Welsh, and it gave the language a sense of presence that it previously did not have.

Question: Which is more important: financial help from the state or a desire by the people themselves to preserve language?

Crystal: For a language to be preserved, three things need to happen, and they have to work together. There has to be, first and foremost, bottom-up interest. That is, the people themselves must want the language preserved. That's absolutely critical, and it doesn't always happen. In some parts of the world, people have given up, as it were, and said, "There is no point. We don't need our language anymore." So if there is any sense of apathy, that certainly does need to be attacked, as it were. There has to be a bottom-up interest.

Secondly, there has to be a top-down interest. Somebody in power, whether it's a local government or a national government or a reflex of some international organization, such as UNESCO or the United Nations or the Council of Europe -- these organizations need to demonstrate that the world appreciates individual languages, as well. So "bottom up" and "top down."

The third factor is there has to be cash. Somehow, somebody has got to pay for this. It's quite an expensive business keeping an endangered language alive until it sort of takes off and generates its own income from whatever it might be, from tourism or whatever. And cash has to come from somewhere, and philanthropic organizations are sometimes very important in this respect. But ultimately, it's the responsibility of the state and the responsibility of the international community.

If all three factors are present, then the future for an endangered language is good.

Question: Do you think Russia, where many of these minority languages exist, really cares about preserving them, or does the government not have the funds or personnel to do any more than it's doing now?

Crystal: I don't know the facts about the individual situation in Russia, but I do know that those countries that have put their money where their mouth is have found that, in fact, it is an enormous saving eventually. It seems expensive, you know, to keep a language going. You might need several tens of thousands of dollars to get the language off the ground, to get it booked into schools, teachers trained, all the things you need to do to keep the language alive.

And it seems like a lot of money, but in actual fact, when you look at what happens when you don't support a minority language, you get all kinds of social disruptions, social unrest. People have to react to the legitimate interests of the people who want their language to live, and that's a very expensive process, as well.

And the people who have actually worked this out think that you actually save an awful lot of money by an investment in a language by saving the consequences of having to cope with the unrest of the people who eventually might even take the law into their own hands and go on marches and hunger strikes and all this sort of thing in support of their language. History has shown this happening many, many times.

So there are both negative sides and positive sides to language investment, and the earlier that one can grasp this nettle and put some money into it, the better.

Question: Has a language with less than 10,000 speakers -- for example, Shor, a Turkic language spoken in the Kemerovo Oblast in the Russian Federation -- declined beyond the point of no return?

Crystal: It is possible for a language to survive, to regenerate -- to "revitalize" is the usual term -- regardless of the number of speakers it has. There are cases on record of peoples with just a few hundred speakers who have, with appropriate support, managed to maintain their language presence and to build upon it. There are even cases of -- I remember one aboriginal language in Australia, for example, a language called Kaurna which actually died out several decades ago, but the new generation of people wanted it back, fortunately, because the language had been recorded, had been documented. They were able to get it back, to reconstruct it, to modernize its vocabulary and start teaching it again.

So the number of speakers in a language isn't really a critical point. You can have a language with hundreds of thousands of speakers, and it can be endangered. It all depends on the circumstances and the motivation of the people themselves and on the [motivation of] local authorities and government to want to maintain that fragment of a nation's identity.