Language Endangerment Can Affect Cultural, Economic, and Spiritual Goals

Language endangerment is a serious concern. For a variety of reasons, speakers of many smaller languages stop using them and begin using another language that may not reflect their heritage. Parents may begin to use only that second language and gradually the inter-generational transmission of the native language is reduced and may even cease. If there are no speakers who use the language as their first or primary language, the culture of the people may be affected.

As we learn from the IMC e-Field Trip, language is constructed on the foundation of the culture. If an indigenous culture is taught to speak a language developed from another culture, the question is what is added and what is lost. How can the impact on the culture be measured?

Language development is the result of the series of on-going planned actions that language communities take so they can effectively use their languages to achieve their social, cultural, political, economic, and spiritual goals. Many native communities are taking steps to preserve the vitality of their languages and to find new ways of using them.

Here is an IMC People Group Fact:

Jula is the trade language of western Burkina Faso and northern Cote d’Ivoire. It is designated by the government to be one of five languages to be developed for literature. 

This graph shows the place of Jula within the cloud of all living languages. Each language in the world is represented by a small dot that is placed on the grid in relation to its population (in the vertical axis) and its level of development or endangerment (in the horizontal axis), with the largest and strongest languages in the upper left and the smallest and weakest languages (down to extinction) in the lower right.

Language Cloud for Jula

  • Purple = Institutional (EGIDS 0-4) — The language has been developed to the point that it is used and sustained by institutions beyond the home and community.

To learn more, visit the International Museum of Cultures. (IMC)

Language is Built on the Need of Its Culture

The language of a people defines its culture in many ways.

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”
-Wade Davis

Electronic Field Trip at the International Museum of CulturesThe Electronic Field Trip from the International Museum of Cultures discusses this concept. Below is an excerpt from the e-Field Trip on Mexico. It touches upon how a language is built upon the foundation of its culture.

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Docent:

What language is spoken in Mexico?

Student:

Spanish. My mother speaks Spanish when she is mad at me.
(student laughter.)

Docent:

Yes, Spanish is the dominate language in Mexico, but did you know that there are 7 language families in Mexico and 298 of individual languages besides Spanish? The map on the back wall shows, in white, where Spanish is the primary language and, in the colors, where other languages are predominate.
(Cut to map)
Docent: (CONT.)
You can see that most of the non-Spanish speakers live in the southern part of Mexico. Some of the languages are tonal which means that the only difference between “I’m going, and I’m not going” may be the tone of your voice. Likewise, some are also nasal, and you must say a vowel through your nose. If you don’t, you might say “chili pepper”, like I did when you really wanted to say “horse’s tail”!

Student:
That could be a problem if you were trying to make chili and put a horse’s tail in the pot.
(student laughter.)
Docent:
You’re right. Languages, to some extent, are partially a result of need. Mixtec dialects can have as many as 20 different words for corn, like the Eskimos have many words for snow: soft snow, slushy snow, icy snow, etc. The Tzeltales in the state of Chiapas have 25 verbs for “carry”, depending on HOW you are going to carry something: on your back, over your shoulder, in a pocket, in your hand, etc.

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As we learn from the e-Field Trip, language is constructed on the foundation of the culture. If an indigenous culture is taught to speak a language from another culture, what is added and what is lost? How can the impact be measured?

Contact the International Museum of Cultures for more information on the Electronic Field Trip and other educational tools.