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Language Revival: should we raise the dead? September 2, 2015

Posted by P, J, or J in Language revitalisation.
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I just finished a free five week course Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages, run by the University of Adelaide. The course is over but as with most MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) you can still sign up and access most of the materials. So why should you?

Does it matter if languages die? Can communities and outsiders do anything about this?

Some of the material is available online via the course YouTube channel but if there is enough to pique your interest then sign up and gain access to videos, transcripts, quizzes and more. Here’s the intro to week 1.

I’ve long been aware that many of the 7000 languages in the world are dying out. As our instructor pointed out “shift happens”. Languages constantly undergo change and some communities gradually move from using one language to another. Some languages die what might be called a natural death. Some are murdered.

Some past and current colonialist and nationalist policies have been responsible for actively killing languages – even to the extent of taking children from their parents and punishing them for speaking their own language.

Australia has a fairly bad history of policies and practices, but so does the USA, Canada, and Britain (If your nation should be adding to this list please feel free to do so in a comment).

An early assignment in the course asked:

“Should we compensate Aboriginal people for the loss of their language? Should current taxpayers carry the burden of paying for a language that was lost 160 years ago? “

Here are some of my own thoughts.

Acknowledging past wrongs is progress, undoing them is impossible, redressing them is complex.

Looking back it is clear that treatment of Aboriginal people and the willful destruction of language and culture is something that should be regretted, acknowledged and addressed – as should so many other past and present wrongs around the globe.

I am not Australian but am British by birth and now also Canadian by virtue of migration and a process of citizenship. Do I also as a result of my birth and adopted heritage share responsibility for the linguicide in both Australia and Canada?

Injustice and inequality can appear easy to spot, identifying the ‘just’ response is more difficult.

When will be called upon to compensate the exploited workers who supply our cheap goods in sweat shops around the globe? When will we provide a fair price to those who grow crops on other continents?

At the same time should there also be appropriate royalties paid to those whose actions have benefited communities and the world in general? Many ‘benefits’ have not involved the free choice of individuals.

If the American colonists had paid their taxes and not sought their independence the Brits might not have seen Australia as such an attractive solution as a place to send some of the early colonists. If the Romans, the Vikings, and the French had not invaded the ancient Britons might have retained more of their own heritage and kept to ourselves. If our own histories had been different we might have treated others better. You can always shift the blame.

Perhaps if things had been done differently in the past there would have been room for some immigrants as welcome guests. Perhaps some language and culture shift would have happened through choice. After all not everything the newcomers brought with them was inherently bad.

“give us choice, not cold coercion, status not discrimination, human rights not segregation” Odgeroo Noonuccal

As a newcomer to this debate I would agree that some current tax dollars should be spent on supporting and revitalising aboriginal languages.

This makes sense not only from a view of justice and reparation but also to extent an economic argument in terms of the benefits of improving identity and esteem. In my own country tax payers are paying for projects to revitalise languages such as Welsh, Manx, Gaelic, and Cornish, as well as on a variety of other projects around heritage.

Meanwhile, on the subject of heritage one report on BBC radio recently reported on the “terrible loss” of some of Britain’s pubs. Some are now protected as listed buildings. There was even mention of a 1920s London pub demolished by the owners which apparently should be rebuilt according to some in the community.

The Royal Oak in Bethnal Green, London, is now preserved for future generations

The Royal Oak in Bethnal Green, London, is now preserved for future generations

…and if it’s worth saving historic pubs, (along with historic castles, churches, and bus stations ). Then it’s hard to say it’s not worth saving languages.

Of course who’s time and money is used is another matter.

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