Tuesday, February 16, 2016

International Mother Language Day

As an addendum to my last post, I'd like to note that February 21 is the United Nations' International Mother Language Day, which this year emphasizes the importance of appropriate languages of instruction, usually mother tongues, in early years of schooling. It facilitates access to education – while promoting fairness – for population groups that speak minority and indigenous languages, in particular girls and women; it raises the quality of education and learning achievement by laying emphasis on understanding and creativity, rather than on rote and memorisation. 

This event was the focus of the Kickstarter campaign initiated by Tim Brookes to create the carving featured on the poster above, and send it to Bangladesh where it will be displayed at Bistaar (the arts complex in Chittagong) as part of the Mother Language Day festivities. The effort almost doubled its goal (originally $1000), and the excess will be used to foster other goals related to Endangered Alphabets.

I initially became involved with these efforts because of my general interest in language and writing systems. In fact, a major component of anything I teach revolves around the importance of the visual communication of stories, ideas, and the human experience in general. This week's topic in Art History 1, for example, focuses on illuminated manuscripts, some of the most beautiful objects ever created by human beings.

But we often forget that without language, and without a code in which to communicate that language on a readable surface, many aspects of human experience and history would be lost to us.

I'm frequently reminded that I'm not alone in my interest and concern, even though the linguistic desert in which I live makes me feel that way sometimes. My news feeds in the last week or so were full of information on Genevieve von Petzinger's research in caves around the world. She has recorded geometric signs found at 146 rock art sites, and categorized them  according to shape in order to begin to understand what they might mean. A handy chart of these is available on the Bradshaw Foundation pages that describe her work. The variety of signs and their contexts may eventually lead to better understandings of why people have made these marks over such a long period (from the Paleolithic on) and over such an immense space. And even though controversy exists (and will most likely persist), it seems clear that early human populations "meant" something by them. They don't have to be a form of writing in order to communicate something to their "readers." But in essence, because we'll probably never really understand them ourselves, that something is lost to us.

Megaloceros with a line of dots at Lascaux Cave

English speakers in general, and Americans in particular, seem to be confident that our own mother tongue is so pervasive that it won't suffer meet its demise in the foreseeable future. It's precisely because of its ubiquity that it will no doubt remain one of the most-spoken and most-read languages in the world. But the history of language is abrim with examples of languages and/or writing systems that have been lost to one extent or another--from Cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mycenaean Linear B, and now Mayan (pretty well entirely deciphered) to Etruscan and Minoan Linear A (either only partially understood or completely undeciphered except for sound values). 
Decipherment of not-yet-understood scripts is a tricky business. One must have a large enough collection of samples in order to establish a frequency of signs, and the underlying language must be recognizable. So with the Rosetta StoneJean-Fran├žois Champollion and Thomas Young had a “crib” via Greek, and when Champollion realized that the third script must be Demotic (related to modern Coptic), the code could be broken. (The BBC article on the decipherment provides a nice summary of the  process.) After Mayanists such as David Stuart, Linda Schele, Yuri Knorozov, and Tatiana Proskouriakoff (among many others) had collected various bits and pieces of how the Mayan language worked from many different discoveries, Mayan was fairly rapidly deciphered. And when Michael Ventris realized that Linear B might be Greek (a notion dismissed by most at the time), he was able to figure out that the script did indeed record an early dialect of Greek.

But what we lose sight of today is the fact that, as David Crystal notes in his introduction to Tim Brookes's Endangered Alphabets

Over the past twenty years, the plight of the world's endangered languages has attracted increased academic and political attention. The figures are sobering. At least half of the world's more than 6,000 languages are so seriously endangered that they are likely to die out in the course of the present century. (Brookes 7)  

Even more troubling, as Crystal goes on to note, 

Around a third of the world's languages have never been written down, and when one of those dies, it leaves no evidence of its existence behind. (Brookes 8)

Efforts like the Endangered Alphabets project and the Endangered Languages Project, and organizations like BASAbali@ARMA, UNESCO, The National Geographic Society, the Endangered Language Alliance in New York City, Living Tongues, and others provide education, language training and/or research into preserving and reviving dying languages.

For an eloquent appraisal of the problem, and more background, see Judith Thurman's March 30, 2015 article in the New Yorker, "A Loss For Words: Can a Dying Language be Saved?"

As a parting shot, I would like to remind folks that language is one of the major components of being human. It enables us to think and to participate fully in our cultures, as well as to communicate with one another. It's also our birthright. So if we dismiss the language in which we were educated, and treat it as if it were some throwaway commodity, we will ultimately diminish ourselves. English may be in no immediate danger of disappearing, but its depth and the craft of expressing it are suffering under the weight of modernity.

To celebrate International Mother Language Day, here are some suggestions: visit some of the links above to discover the breadth of the problem and learn about some of the solutions people are developing. And for English speakers who are not yet concerned about diminishing language skills, here are two articles, one I found only recently and that describes the consequences of diminished vocabulary ("The Limits of Our Vocabulary Reflect the Limits of Our World," by Anna Brix Thomsen for The Hampton Institute), and the other a classic that I've used in every critical thinking class I've ever taught (George Orwell's 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language").

Then go out and write something beautiful.

Image credits: The Mother Language poster was designed by Alec Julien, and photographed by Tom Way. Tim Brookes carved the text in the four languages of Bangladesh: Bangla, Marma, Chakma, and Mro. The Megaloceros image is from Wikipedia.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Revisiting Endangered Alphabets and Languages

Once again, the confluence of coincidences has evoked a post; this time it all involves a new Kickstarter effort (The Mother Tongues Campaign) on behalf of Tim Brookes's Endangered Alphabets, New Scientist's cover story this week on "The Eloquent Ape" and related commentary, and the growing chagrin experienced by my Beloved Spouse, my colleagues, and myself about the demise of language skills among college students.

I've written about the Endangered Alphabets Project a couple of times before (Losing Languages in 2011 and Endangered Languages Revisited in 2013--partly about BASAbali), and so will try not to repeat myself this time. But if you've got the wherewithal to support a worthwhile project, please visit the links above, or see the Kickstarter page (the small campaign has been funded, but more donations will result in its enrichment).

What makes this kind of project all the more meaningful is watching less endangered languages (English and the major European languages, for example) suffer from the onslaught of technologies based on reflexive, instantaneous responses that require neither linguistic acumen nor simple thoughtfulness.  I've frequently railed against the twitter-machine (although not by name) and gave up a gig as a community voices volunteer for the Daily Poop because they wanted me to feed them occasional one-paragraph comments on things that really need more than soundbites.  And while I much prefer text-messaging to telephone calls because texting allows me the possibility of passing ideas through my brain-filters before they exit my mouth, I rue the effects of texting on the general public. This doesn't make me a Luddite computer-hater, however. I'm a great lover of e-mail because it allows me to respond to messages and engage in long discussions over time about important topics.  I've made more than a few on-line friends through the blogs and through MOOC fora, and these have led to rich and enjoyable conversations that I probably would not have been able to participate in if handwritten letters were still required.

Nevertheless, the Beloved Spouse and I spend part of each morning's newspaper-reading session grousing about the demise of vocabulary and the inappropriate use of prepositions. Our students constantly seek to "base off of" rather than "base on," or to "center around" rather than "center on." And while these might seem insignificant (after all, language changes), they indicate a growing lack of precision and subtlety in common parlance. What might it mean to base an essay "off of" a poem? How does a question "center around" a particular event?  As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson once noted (in Metaphors We Live By), prepositions often indicate orientational metaphors (waking up) that have to do with spatial relationships. So what could it possibly mean to center around something, or base something off of something else?

Of course, some prepositions are variable enough that regional differences arise (New Yorkers stand on line, while Californians stand in line; Brits use "difference to" where we say "different from"),  and arguments can be made that the implied orientations in these cases make some sense. But if we lose appropriate prepositions, or rich, varied vocabularies, how can we retain any level of literary or other communicative sophistication?

Another observation, somewhat related to the loss of vocabulary, is the loss of second language acquisition in the US. A not-so-recent, but still useful article from Forbes (August 2012) explores "America's Foreign Language Deficit." The upshot is that our kids are missing out on learning other languages and this isn't without consequences:

We should care – a lot – about our foreign language deficit.  We need diplomats, intelligence and foreign policy experts, politicians, military leaders, business leaders, scientists, physicians, entrepreneurs, managers, technicians, historians, artists, and writers who are proficient in languages other than English.  And we need them to read and speak less commonly taught languages (for which funding has recently been cut by the federal government) that are essential to our strategic and economic interests, such as Farsi, Bengali, Vietnamese, Burmese and Indonesian.

My periodic queries in my classes about who speaks a language other than English reveal a few Spanish-speakers whose parents came from Mexico or Central America, or an occasional Vietnamese, Chinese, or South Asian child of immigrant parents. A few Anglo kids have taken French or German in high school, and over the years I've found that some animation students or martial arts devotees have studied some Japanese. But hardly anyone who is not him- or herself an immigrant can speak anything but English fluently. 

In the end, what this means for real fluency in English is that too many speakers lack the depth of training necessary to really understand how language works. They develop only a superficial notion of how nouns and verbs work together, or how prepositions indicate the underlying cases of nouns. Adverbs dangle all over the place, introducing sentences in which they are completely unrelated to any verb or adjective that follows. This may sound nit-picky, but "Hopefully, the aliens won't attack" suggests that the aliens won't attack hoping to kick our collective fannies; I'm pretty sure they would. This kind of subtlety is, unfortunately, lost on most of the writing students I've taught in recent years.

The linguistic pleasures experienced in this house stem from long association with other cultures or wide-ranging literary and philosophical interests.  My early encounter with Japanese makes watching Studio Ghibli films in Japanese enormously fun; familiarity with Classical and modern European languages has widened the range of literary treats available to us--not only because we can read some of them in the original tongues, but because we can understand allusions in the works of the far more adept English-speaking writers of the past. 

It saddens me that so many of my students will never enjoy the richness of language, and they won't even know what they're missing. But I do wonder what will happen in a generation or two, when we old fanatics and nit-pickers are gone, and very few American college graduates really understand what they're reading. Even if the second language the 53% of Europeans are speaking according to the Forbes article (in contrast to the 18% of Americans speaking another language) is English, I wonder if in the end they'll actually speak it better than Americans do.

But as Tim Brookes, Alissa Stern, and others who work so tirelessly to foster the survival of truly endangered languages and writing systems have reminded us, some cultures are in imminent danger of losing their linguistic heritages altogether.  We can help them by contributing to their efforts; but we can also do so by reminding ourselves and others that language is a fundamentally human accomplishment. By ignoring its gifts, we diminish ourselves, and the potential impact on our future is problematic--and certainly not promising.

Image credit: Tim Brookes carved the above plaque, which spells out the word for "owl" in Balinese. It was my reward for backing the original Endangered Alphabets Kickstarter campaign. The plaque was photographed in the Burr Oak tree in my back yard, and illustrated the original post on the Farm.