Development Perspectives for Minority Languages in Estonian Separated Language Environments

By Kuun, Elvira | Trames, June 2010 | Go to article overview
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Development Perspectives for Minority Languages in Estonian Separated Language Environments


Kuun, Elvira, Trames


1. Introduction

One of the most characteristic features of the 20th century is the wide-scale migration on nations across national and geographic borders. Among other things, the focus of solving the problems regarding immigration must be the unavoidability, the mechanisms facilitating language preservation and language death, and also models and strategies used for preserving and developing languages among future generations who are born in host countries (Schwartz 2008:400).

It is estimated that the number of languages in the entire world is somewhere in the range of 6,000 to 7,000 (Crystal 2000:4). The dominating majority of the world's population speaks only four percent of these languages. It is possible that in the 21st century we will see 90% of all languages dying or being predetermined for death (Krauss 1992). Language death is the last stage of language shift, whereas it starts with a decrease of the number of people speaking the target language, bringing about a loss of language skills of a decrease of the usage of the language in various fields (Baker 2006:75). Maintaining language, on the other hand, means a continuing use of the language, fighting a regionally and socially more powerful language, and a stable persistence of the language on the basis of the people speaking the language, the language skills (among both adults and children) and preservation of the language (i.e. both in the field of home and religious use and also outside home, e.g. in the school environment) (ibid.). Conklin and Lourie (1983) have stated political, cultural and linguistic factors that help preserve a language or expel it. In summary, these factors are as follows:

* Political, social and demographical factors, e.g.

--Contact with home country and visiting the home country should be available;

--Identity of the ethnic group should be preserved instead of taking on the identity of the majority group.

* Cultural factors, e.g.

--Institutions using the native language must exist (i.e. schools, community organisations, broadcast media, recreational activities);

--Cultural activities and religious traditions must be conducted in the home language;

--Ethnic identity must be strongly related to the home language.

* Language factors, e.g.

--Native language must be standardised and must exist in a written form;

--Home language must have an international status;

--There must be written skills in the native language, used in the community and in the home country.

Many cultures and languages of the world--especially those with a smaller population--are in danger of being assimilated by other, dominating languages and cultures. Thousands of languages have already vanished within the last couple of centuries. There is a global trend of pressure towards homogeneity, concerning both national assimilation and economic globalisation (Edwards 2002).

Almost all languages spoken by 1,000 people or less are endangered, although even languages spoken much more widely are susceptible to the same pressure. Among these small languages, many have experienced the stage of near extinction, because only the remaining elderly people are still speaking them (Crystal 2000). These languages have not been passed along to the younger generation for a long time and thus, as the older generation will die out in due course, these languages will not be spoken any more. Together with losing languages, much knowledge, many beliefs and values also become lost that were kept by the community, or they at least diminish in time: they will be more and more replaced by the knowledge and values of the dominating language and culture (Edwards 2002).

Most of such languages are not written, they are not officially recognised, their use is limited to the local community and they have a function only in the field of unofficial language use, especially at home and within family.

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Development Perspectives for Minority Languages in Estonian Separated Language Environments
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