Save the Endangered Languages
I’m wrapping up a unit on Transcendentalism with my American literature students. We’ve focused on essays by Emerson and Thoreau that beseech us to reject technology, embrace our individuality, and accept nature as part of our divine existence. However, something I heard on NPR tonight suggests that technology might be the very key to sustaining our individuality.
According to a report on All Tech Considered, half of the total languages spoken in our world could be extinct by the end of this century. Aboriginal languages in America’s Pacific Northwest, for example, are slowly being phased out as those cultures assimilate more and more into the dominant English-speaking culture. However, thanks to digital tools now available to us, staying connected to your language is easier than ever. Online lesson plans, translations, social networks, and dictionaries make it easy and convenient to stay in touch with one’s native tongue. And in Canada, the Inuit people are taking steps to preserve their language, Inuktitut, by working with Microsoft to create translations of Microsoft Word and other everyday computer programs. The project leader has this to say about the importance of everyday engagement with one’s native tongue: “So many people will spend their entire day sitting in front of a computer, and if you’re sitting in front of your computer in English all day then that just reinforces English… if you’re now using Inuktitut, it’s just reinforcing that this is your language.”
We have language to communicate, so embracing technology that can link speakers together could be the answer to keeping all 7,000-odd world languages alive instead of fulfilling the linguists’ prediction that half will be gone in the next ninety years or so. I also see language as a powerful, albeit intangible, artifact of a culture. A culture’s values can be apparent simply in the variety of its distinctive lexicon. As our world becomes increasingly globalized, we have the unique challenge of maintaining our individuality while continuing to come together as a global community. Emerson and Thoreau might have eschewed technology, but they also said that we shouldn’t be afraid to evolve in our ways of thinking about the changing world around us.