Last week, while reading a brief
article, I learned about a government that had once disfranchised immigrant Chinese
because they were seen as "a threat
to the purity
of the ballot box." This same nation also recently eliminated multilingual emergency telephone lines, cutting hundreds of thousands of people off from relief
Believe it or not, I am speaking of the United States.
Throughout the world, similar acts of racism are occurring every day. Presently, minority and indigenous languages are being threatened by powerful elites who are imposing an unnatural homogeneity upon people from innumerable cultural backgrounds. As a result, the vast majority of the world's languages are now "endangered species," and the issue of "linguistic diversity" has become the subject of heated international debate.
For many proponents of linguistic diversity, the world is being colonized by English and other "mega-languages" at the expense of indigenous and minority languages. Today, there are more than 10,000 languages throughout the world. Alarmingly, as many as 90 percent of these languages may be extinct or moribund – that is, no longer learned by children – by the year 2100.
Currently, 80 percent of the world's languages exist in only one small region or country. Thus, some people have argued that it would be beneficial, even logical, for all people to communicate in just a few international super-languages.
Yet a closer look at linguistic diversity indicates the profoundly negative impact the disappearance of languages will have on the planet. First, there is mounting evidence linking linguistic diversity to biodiversity and a balanced global environment. According to Dr. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, vice-president of the international nonprofit group Terralingua, "It has taken centuries for people to learn about their environments and to name the complex ecological relationships that are decisive for maintenance of biodiversity. When indigenous peoples lose their languages, much of this knowledge also disappears."
Take for example Californian English. Nowhere in the vocabulary is there a terminology for indigenous agricultural methods or names for hundreds of thousands of tree species. Given that we do not live in a rainforest, this is understandable. If indigenous languages from rainforest regions disappear, however, we will lose this information, which is central to the maintenance of biodiversity. And all the "hellas" and "dudes" in the world won't bring it back.
In a recent environmental program report, U.N. officials stated, "Threatened languages store the knowledge about how to maintain and use sustainably some of the most vulnerable and biologically diverse environments in the world." In other words, as languages diminish, so does the human capacity to care for fragile ecosystems and biodiversity.
Secondly, it is critical to recognize that the groups most affected by linguistic colonization are the same as those which have been subjected to ongoing economic colonization over the past five centuries: indigenous and minority populations.
One of the many types of violence that has been committed against these peoples throughout the last 500 years is linguistic genocide, in which indigenous culture is destroyed as mega-languages such as English or Spanish become the only legal languages of a particular region.
According to the original U.N. definition, linguistic genocide is "prohibiting the use of the language of a group in daily intercourse or in schools, or the printing and circulation of publications in the language of the group." The definition also includes indirect prohibition, whereby native speakers of a minority language are made to feel ashamed of their language and are overlooked by publishers and libraries discriminating against literature in these languages.
Indigenous peoples control or manage nearly 20 percent of the world's land and speak over 60 percent of the world's languages despite representing only 4 percent of the total human population. Indigenous groups effectively serve as the planet's guardians; therefore, life on Earth is seriously threatened when its linguistic traditions are attacked.
Thus, though the issue may seem farfetched, linguistic diversity is actually very relevant to our future survival. Unfortunately, linguistic genocide continues daily. According to Dr. Skutnabb-Kangas, "The media and educational systems are the most important direct agents in language murder today," prioritizing certain languages over others while portraying indigenous and minority populations as backward and less competent.
These patterns are present here in Los Angeles. In 1998, Californians passed Proposition 227, which institutionalized English as the sole official language for all state government programs, including health and social welfare services. The proposition paved the way for an English-based monoculture and catalyzed a national movement against linguistic diversity within the United States. Perhaps most significantly, however, Proposition 227 has destroyed bilingual public education in a state that is home to more than 40 percent of the nation's "limited English proficient" students.
Twice a week, I work as a bilingual literacy tutor in East Los Angeles with Spanish-speaking first graders struggling to learn English in the post-227 LAUSD. I have witnessed first hand the way children are led to reject their bilingualism and to see their Spanish skills not as a gift, but rather as something to be ashamed of, an inheritance to renounce. If this isn't linguistic and cultural genocide, what is?
The attack on languages is yet another way in which homogenized culture is being thrust upon our globalized planet. Agricultural monocultures are dangerous for crops, rendering them more susceptible to pests and destroying soil. Similarly, a cultural and linguistic monoculture is dangerous for people, destroying the foundations of our complex human relationships.
In order for biodiversity and traditional/indigenous knowledge systems to survive, linguistic and cultural diversity must be maintained. In order for such diversity to be preserved, linguistic genocide has to be stopped.
As Dr. Skutnabb-Kangas wrote, "When speakers of small languages learn other, necessary, languages in addition to their native languages, they become multilingual, and the maintenance of linguistic diversity is supported. When dominant languages such as English are learned subtractively, at the cost of the mother languages, they become killer languages." If we want to avoid becoming mere carbon copies of one another, and are serious about surviving, we must stop the destruction of linguistic diversity.