Have the dominant world languages contributed to the death of indigenous languages?
Linguistic multiplicity is indispensable to human heritage. A language is the incarnation of a people’s and a culture’s wisdom. When humanity loses a language, it loses its heritage of knowledge and perspectives which may never be retrieved. Today, there are approximately six thousand languages still in existence although many of these are threatened. In the field of language vitality, linguists work to gain an understanding of how endangered languages come into jeopardy but also how they may be protected and afforded vitality – the means to continue and prosper through time.
On the 15th and 16th of March a diverse group of internationally renowned linguists came together at Nanyang Technological University’s School of Humanities to share their unique perspectives on the topic of language vitality. The workshop was organised by Assoc. Prof. Tan Ying Ying in collaboration with the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Studies, South Africa.
In the first session titled Thinking Vitality, Professor Salikoko Mufwene of the University of Chicago focused on Asia and its contact history, to suggest that linguists’ conceptualisation of language vitality should acknowledge that language contact, often perceived as detrimental to language vitality, has outcomes which vary tremendously from country to country, owing to unique ecological conditions. By presenting the case of Malay and Tamil in Singapore, NTU’s Associate Professor Tan Ying Ying how the examination of linguistic justice might have a role to play in explaining and identifying threats to language vitality. She supported her bold argument with sociological data on the views of over four hundred Singaporeans. NTU’s Assistant Professor Ivan Panovic presented data from his work on Arabic(s) in Egypt, Morocco and Kenya to explain how the consideration of language as practice rather than a system may offer a fresh perspective on the vitality of the language(s) there.
The second collection of talks were concerned with ‘Englishizing’ the World. Matthias Brenzinger, Director of the Centre for African Language Diversity (CALDi) at the University of Cape Town gave his audience some insight into the fascinating work conducted by CALDi to rescue language vitality and protect languages on the African continent. Noting that in Africa, African languages seem to in most cases to replace African languages, the ‘Englishization’ of the world seems to be an unrealised menace. The National University of Singapore’s Assistant Professor Nala Lee told of her work to help create the Language Endangerment Index (LEI) which provides the Endangered Languages Catalogue with a means to establish the extent of language endangerment for contact languages. Asst Prof Lee presented LEI data which demonstrated that there are twenty vulnerable, five threatened and three dormant English-lexified contact languages today. A Cameroonian perspective on language vitality was delivered by Dr Emmanuel Ngue Um of the University of Yaoundé I. He suggested that speaking either English or French in the country has developed from a colonial imposition into an identity which discursively supersedes more traditional ethnic and tribal identities.
In his paper, Viewing Vitality from Africa, Dr Cecile Vigouroux of British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University presented evidence from Cape Town on speakers who chose to adopt Lingala over other national lingua-franca to re-address vitality-related notions, including but not limited to the value of languages and the role of language in informal economies. Professor Susan Coetzee-Van Rooy of North-West University presented data from her survey study on the multilingual repertoires of urban South African students in the Vaal Triangle region to demonstrate high levels of language vitality in the area. Professor Bertus Van Rooy, also of North-West University, how Afrikaans developed an academic register consequent to being afforded vitality which seems to now be threatened by reduced vitality, consequent to globalization and a heavy preference for the use of English in some academic contexts.
‘Living’ Languages in Singapore were explored by the Professor Lionel Wee of the National University of Singapore, NTU’s Professor Kingsley Bolton and Assistant Professor Werner Botha. Professor Wee posited that the vitality of what is often labelled colloquial Singapore English, or Singlish, can be observed when it is perceived to be an ever-evolving and ever-growing ‘assemblage’. Professor Bolton and Asst Prof. Botha presented data demonstrating the vitality inherent in the vernacular language of Singaporean university students.
A perspective of language vitality through identity was provided by an introduction to research conducted by NTU’s Associate Professor Ng Bee Chin and Associate Professor Francesco Cavallaro. Data from their study highlights patterns of convergence and divergence in language choice among Singapore’s three major ethnic groups, which paint a picture of the vitality of Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil in the island-nation. Identity and language vitality were related by Professor Morwessi Sito’s of the University of Johannesburg with her introduction to data from ‘black Twitter’, in which the use and protection of ethnic languages is present with vigor, despite colonization by globalization.
Overall, the workshop offered fresh insight into the loss of languages and the ways in which dominant world languages have contributed to the death of indigenous languages. The meeting address the question of language vitality in the world of globalisation and the use of English as a lingua franca.
This news item was first published in Constellations
, the magazine for the Humanities in Singapore.