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World: Analysis From Washington -- The Claims Of Small Languages

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 4 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Efforts in the United States to promote languages spoken by relatively small groups of people or even to revive languages no longer spoken by anyone have sparked a new debate over the claims such language communities have on the larger society.

In this debate, some linguistic activists and scholars point to the importance for all of maintaining these distinct linguistic groups, as a source of meaning for their own members and as a basis for comparison with other languages.

As American linguist Akira Yamamoto put it last week, "If you speak English, you have one world; if you speak Navajo, you have another world." Navajo is one of the most widespread Native American languages, and its advocates, like the supporters of these other languages, believe its preservation is important both for those who speak it and also for those who seek to understand the development of languages more generally.

But others suggest that such efforts are doomed to fail or at the very least that any money spent on them could be better used to integrate members of these groups into the English-speaking world, lest the speakers of these languages be excluded from the opportunities available in the larger community.

Those who take this view, including Harvard University philosophy professor Michael Blake, noted that languages have died throughout history and that efforts to prevent that from happening are doomed to fail. Indeed, he said in a recent article, "It is not immediately clear to me why we should try to preserve them."

But if Blake and others like him have doubts, many ethnic activists and linguistic specialists do not. They are working hard to preserve the 211 languages still spoken by Native peoples in the United States and even to revive some languages that have already lost their last native speakers.

Yamamoto noted that "all 211 [of these languages] are in danger of extinction." Only one -- Navajo -- is spoken by as many as 100,000; and only 20 have any speakers among the youngest generation. If that trend continues, most of these languages are likely to die out over the next generation or two.

To prevent that from happening, activists have sought to promote these languages in a variety of ways. Hawaiian, which was once used by almost all residents of that island archipelago, was spoken by only approximately 1,500 people by the early 1980s. But since that time, a group of activists have set up a special Hawaiian-language preschool and sought to expand this program to older children and even adults.

But perhaps the most striking development has been the efforts of some to revive languages no longer spoken at all. Descendents of the 2,500-person-strong Wampanoag community in Massachussetts are seeking to recreate a language that has not been spoken for a century. And members of the Miami Nation in Indiana are doing the same thing with a tongue whose last native speaker died in 1962.

These activists have won some academic and political support. Indeed, Berkeley linguistics professor Leanne Hinton argues that "we no longer use the term 'dead' language -- we now speak of them as 'dormant.'"

But precisely because such efforts must compete for scarce educational resources, many people both among these groups and more generally are questioning them. Some believe that their children would gain more by learning English and thus tracking into the mainstream than by preserving a language for which in the future they may have little use.

Others argue that the funds being spent on such efforts should be directed at other, more pressing social problems, including poverty, alcoholism, and crime. And still a third group, while happy to see the new interest and respect being shown to their languages, doubt that languages used by only a few hundred or a few thousand can have much of a future in a world dominated by the Internet.

Ever more countries have been grappling with the question of how important it is to preserve languages spoken by only a small number of people. But this renewed debate in the United States appears likely to spark a broader one over the claims of small languages and those who would challenge them.