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Letting Minority Languages Getting Terminated is Like Letting One’s High-Wealth Being Robbed Away While One is Busy Counting the Waste



|| June 12: 2018: University of Helsinki News: Juha Merimaa Writing || ά. There are about 7,000 languages in the world and it is possible that only 15% of them will be passed on to the next generation. 7,000 and 23. These are the key figures for counting the world’s languages. Stating an exact number is impossible, as it depends on when a dialect becomes a language. For example, Meänkieli, formerly considered a dialect of Finnish spoken in northern Sweden, has only been considered a full language since 2000.
However, most of the languages spoken in the world are very small: a vast number of languages only have a few hundred or, even, just a few dozen speakers. Or to put things in more academic terms: the median number of speakers of the languages in the world is just 7,500. On the other end of the spectrum are the dominant languages in the world, giants, such as, Chinese, Spanish, English and Arabic. This brings us to another important figure: just 23 languages cover half of the world’s population. And their position is not being threatened, quite the contrary.

“If the 20th century was considered the age when languages disappear, the 21st could be the age when they are destroyed.” says Professor Riho Grünthal, of Finno-Ugric languages at the University of Helsinki. He estimates that only 10-15% of the languages spoken today will be passed on to the next generation of speakers. If, his estimate is correct, it would mean that within a hundred years, the number of languages spoken in the world would drop to less than a thousand.

Why do languages disappear? “It’s a question of power. Small languages are the languages of minorities. They aren’t considered important. And since the majority population does not study the minority language, it can only be used at home.” says Ms Annika Pasanen, a Linguist, who has studied language extinction. The nation state, with its ideas of a single language unifying the people, has proven to be a particularly destructive concept for languages.

“In Europe, the ‘one language, one nation’ ideology was mainstream for a long time. This led to a dramatic drop in language skills. It’s currently completely normal to speak only one or two languages. Historically, people would have competence in many more languages.” Professor Grünthal points out.   Sometimes language loss, may be, the result of practical solutions. In colonial Africa, minority languages were, often, left alone but after independence, the language of the former masters was typically made the only official language, as the fledgling nation would have no other common language among its people.

Another reason is the destruction of indigenous way of life. The world’s most language-rich area is Papua New Guinea, which has approximately 840 known languages. Indonesia has more than 700 languages and Nigeria, more than 500. As the old tribal communities are increasingly integrated into the surrounding society, they need to learn the majority language to get by. At the same time, their own language becomes a less and less significant part of their day to day lives. 

“Often, even, the speakers of small languages themselves will say that their language is not suitable for cities or organised societies. This is incorrect. Languages adapt.” Says Ms Pasanen. Should we be worried about the extinction of languages? Languages have been emerging and disappearing throughout history.

“It’s a question of the world’s cultural heritage. Every language describes the environment and community in which it is created. When a language is lost, a piece of culture goes with it. It’s tragic.” says Professor Grünthal. This is to say that the extinction of languages is as natural as the extinction of natural species. However, the currently ongoing language destruction is unique in the history of the world and the result of conscious choices.

“Ultimately, the fact is that people will study and speak languages, that they consider to be useful. If, we want to stop the extinction of small languages, we should make it useful to speak them. People are usually lazy and don’t want to study several languages, if, they can make do with just one.” says Professor Grünthal. How big does a language need to be to survive? How small can a language be and still be preserved?

Geographer Mr Jared Diamond, who has written about languages, said in an interview with Yliopisto Magazine last year that he considered the Faroese language to be the smallest viable language. Faroese has more than 50,000 speakers, a strong community and governmental support. On a global scale, a language of 50,000 speakers is relatively large. Most languages are much smaller. Ms Annika Pasanen does not like to categorise languages by viability. 

“Such categorisation serves no purpose, nor is it ethical. The fact is that some languages will go extinct but I would not call any language unviable.”   Even, a very small language can be saved, if, active steps are taken. The most internationally known example is Hebrew, which had been confined to ritual use for centuries, until Israel made it its national language and revitalised it as a spoken language. Today, millions of people speak Hebrew.

Ms Pasanen has spent most of her career studying the Inari Sami language, which is spoken around Lake Inari in northern Lapland. In the beginning of the 1990s, the language seemed to be on death’s door; there were only a few families using it. But the speakers of Inari Sami took action and with help from the government, began to systematically revitalise the language, particularly, among children. The ‘language nest’ kindergarten proved to be an important tool for immersing children in their language and culture. Another good policy is to cast away excessively restrictive language rules.

Inari Sami has welcomed influences from the outside. Now the language has approximately 400 speakers. Ms Pasanen sees this as a good rate of development.  “Even, very small languages can be saved, if, there is sufficient motivation.” she states. Much of it depends on the attitudes of governmental authorities. But, even, a single person can make a difference.” says Professor Grünthal.  “If, every member of the majority populace learned to speak a single minority language, it would change the world.”

In Russia: Last summer, Russian President Mr Vladimir Putin spoke about the freedom of choice at a meeting of Russia’s Council on Interethnic Relations. He announced that Russian-speaking parents around the country had complained about the study of minority languages being difficult and pointless. The president decided to declare minority language studies voluntary. In future, the right to study a minority language will have to be specially applied for.

he news came as a shock to members of the Komi people, among others. The Komi Republic has approximately 900,000 inhabitants, of whom 160,000 are native speakers of the Komi language, a member of the Finno-Ugric language group. Komi is, also, the official language of the Komi Republic. It has been taught in schools according to two curricula: as a native language to Komi speakers and as a second language to Russian speakers. In addition, native speakers of Komi have received teaching in Komi literature.   However, many schools no longer teach Komi as a native language.

Villages are becoming increasingly Russian and Komi is not seen as an important language. “I’m sure that most Russian speakers will not apply to study Komi.” says Ms Galina Misharina, a Teacher of the Komi language and student at the University of Helsinki. She believes that the policy will lead to Komi language-teaching groups dwindling and being shut down. In the Komi Republic, people have signed a petition, which was handed to the heads of the Republic.

At the moment, all reforms have been frozen until the beginning of the next autumn term. Even, though, the position of Komi, a language of 150,000 speakers, may, seem secure in comparison with the smallest languages in the world, political decisions can be very destructive in a short amount of time. Komi, with a literary tradition longer than that of Finnish, needs support, not further hurdles. “A century ago, the Komi Republic was 90% Komi-speaking.

Now, Komi speakers account for less than 20%.” Says Ms Misharina. “What will happen to a language, that is taught outside the school curriculum as a voluntary subject, with education provided upon application from the parents?” Probably nothing good. :::ω.

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