Language revitalisation

That the English language is dominating international communication is hardly news. As if more confirmation was needed, recently the European Parliament introduced a new helpline, where Members of the European Parliament and staff can find answers to the finer points of English grammar and style. This is hardly a negative development, but the lack of similar services for other languages underscores the hegemonic status of English. Does this mean that minor languages are doomed to die? Some recent news items suggest that this need not be the case.

In China, the Beijing Linguistics Committee seems to have taken action towards preserving the local dialect spoken in Beijing. To do this, they have began recording the lexicon of the dialect, with the help of elderly users among whom it is still spoken. Of course, language preservation involves more than just documenting a threatened language. In Australia, language activists have secured funding for a three-year project that aims to revive the Barngarla Aboriginal language. It appears that the project involves language workshops and may lead to the creation of a language centre.

What both these projects have in common is a heightened sense of value, among participants, for the languages that are being preserved: Participants in the Chinese program seem to regard preservation of their language as an almost sacred duty: “What I record is going to be a reference for the future generations. It cannot be wrong”, one of them reportedly said. Similarly, a Baragnlara representative is quoted talking about “birth right” of the Baranglara “to be recognised and to speak their language with pride and honour”.

The success of language revitalisation projects hinges on such attitudes towards the language, a fact also confirmed by the revitalisation of Hebrew in Israel. This grass-roots approach can be usefully contrasted with the sometimes clumsy attempts to preserve language by mandate: this story on Quebec authorities legislating English away serves as a helpful counterexample.  What all this seems to imply is a need of a language policy that is not just sensitive to local linguistic ecologies, but also reflective of the values and attitudes of the linguistic minorities.

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