World languages promote diversity, creativity and cultural identity
On the eve of International Mother Language Day on Feb. 21, UBC anthropologist and linguist Christine Schreyer discusses identity, the impact of colonialism and the race to preserve indigenous and minority languages.
Why is it important to protect languages at risk?
It’s important to protect the diversity of global languages, because for many people around the world, language represents their cultural identity. Languages provide understanding into the way we as humans think; if we all spoke one language we would lose insight into human cognition and creativity. Languages tell us much about how different people, in different places, and in different times see the world. For instance, if a society has many words for a particular type of animal or particular type of plant, it might tell us what that society holds (or held) as important to them.
Why are some languages falling in to disuse?
Around the world, colonization has been one reason why some languages – often indigenous ones – are no longer being spoken as children’s first languages. Pressure to assimilate, forced schooling in colonial languages in residential schools, and laws banning indigenous languages and culture customs contribute to this loss even today. Other reasons for language loss include national language policies that focus on only one or two languages and neglect minority languages. Last, globalization and increased pressure to communicate to wide audiences has resulted in a shift towards global languages such as English, Spanish and French..
What work are you doing to revitalize languages?
Currently, I am working with a few different indigenous communities to help on projects that they’ve initiated. For instance, I am helping the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, located in northwestern British Columbia, develop a participatory on-line mapping tool to record their Tlingit place names. The website will help people learn about their territory, as well as their Tlingit language. I am also working with Kala speakers, located in the Morobe Province of Papua New Guinea. Kala is a traditionally oral language, but the speakers wanted a writing system for their language so that they could teach it in schools. I analyzed the sounds of the Kala language and then made suggestions to the Kala Language Committee about what letters could represent those sounds for their new alphabet.