Guest Column by: K. David Harrison
When ideas go extinct, we all grow poorer. Half the world’s 7,000 languages now face extinction — a dramatic shift in human intellectual history. Our 21st-century world — replete with wondrous technologies — rests upon the foundation of all humankind’s prior wisdom and creativity. This human knowledge base is durable and, during 99 percent of human history, has been passed solely from mouth to ear. Yet it is fragile, mostly unwritten and vulnerable to forgetting.
Human survival required not just genetic diversity for physical vigor, but diversity of ideas for ingenuity. Knowledge expressed uniquely in each of 7,000 living tongues — and resisting direct translation — allowed our species to thrive on this planet. We are now entering an informational and evolutionary bottleneck, heading for a global memory wipe as languages vanish.
While the top of the economic pyramid may be dominated by a few players, the knowledge pyramid is inversely skewed, with just 0.1 percent of the world’s population possessing a full 80 percent of our languages and the vast knowledge they encode. Humans spent millennia functioning in oral societies. Longevity of information was ensured by distributing it across multiple brains and evolving complex social structures to ensure inter-generational transmission. In our knowledge-based economy, we now outsource most memory tasks to digital media, no longer memorizing stories, poems or even phone numbers. But a computer hard drive is less durable than each successive medium that came before it: paper, papyrus, clay, stone and human memory.
Some frame multilingualism as a hindrance to progress and wish for one dominant world tongue. Should we choose English, with irregular verbs and illogical spelling? Swahili, with hundreds of thousands of forms for any given verb? Hawaiian, easier to pronounce with just eight consonants? Skeptics may assert that Hawaiian did not put men on the moon, and lacks words like “byte” and “hard drive.” True, Hawaiians did not invent space travel, but they traversed the vast Pacific Ocean without compasses or maps. Memorizing star paths and sensing subtle wave interference patterns, they could plot a true course to distant unseen islands. Like any language, Hawaiian adapts quickly and has coined new words for technologies.
Emerging languages will prove to be a fertile source of new ideas. Language localization — part of the push-back against globalization, is a growing trend. Whether in a Cherokee immersion kindergarten, or an Inuktitut Web browser, localization fosters positive attitudes. Quickly internalized by speakers, such sentiments help save languages from extinction. Nations that let multiple languages flourish will thrive in the innovation economy. Tech-savvy India, a nation particularly rich in languages with over 500, fosters multilingualism with tolerant policies, while producing students who are also fluent in Hindi and English.
In immigrant communities, such as the Vietnamese in the U.S., children who continue speaking their heritage language at home, while becoming bilingual at school, show improved academic performance. As the Journal of Youth and Adolescence notes: “Recent studies with adolescents from several different immigrant groups have found a positive relationship between ethnic language proficiency and future educational and occupational aspirations.” From an indigenous perspective, Alaskan Yup’ik writer Harold Napoleon concurs: “Many villages have expressed interest in reviving … Native language use in their schools, because it has become evident that practicing one’s cultural heritage and speaking one’s heritage language promotes self-esteem in young people.”
New information technologies are cleverly leveraged by linguistic survivors. Social networking sites showcase Anishinaabemowin, a Native American language spoken in Michigan and the Great Lakes region; social media helps revitalize Cherokee; and children in Nunavut, Canada’s Arctic north, navigate the Web in Inuktitut, the language of their hunter-gatherer grandparents.
Collectively, these grassroots and corporate efforts at language revitalization converge on a global trend. I predict it will prove to be one of the most intriguing social dynamics in coming decades. People are rejecting a false choice of globalization — that they must choose to give up local tongues to monolingually speak a global one. Access to heritage languages strengthens identity, belonging and access to traditional wisdom. We are all enriched. The real payoff to protecting language diversity is thus intellectual, yielding a foment of ideas. No culture has a monopoly on genius, and we never know where the next great idea will emerge.
Linguist Joshua Fishman, who championed Yiddish, said it best: “The entire world needs a diversity of ethnolinguistic entities … for fostering greater aesthetic, intellectual and emotional capacities for humanity as a whole, indeed, for arriving at a higher state of human functioning.” We should treasure humanity’s astonishing linguistic diversity and work for its survival and expansion. I am thrilled to be presenting my work on endangered languages at the Chautauqua Institution, and I look forward to discussions with Chautauquans on this topic.
K. David Harrison is a linguist, author and activist for the documentation and preservation of endangered languages teaching at Swarthmore College. He serves as director of research for the non-profit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, and leads scientific research for National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project.