The Larger Importance of Smaller Languages

Manila Bulletin, December 16, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Larger Importance of Smaller Languages


Byline: J. Stephen Quakenbush, Ph.D. Academic Services Coordinator SIL International-Asia

THE SAMAFILBER (Samahan ng Magpapaunlad ng Filipino at Bernakular) held their Northern Luzon conference last weekend at the University of the Philippines in Baguio City. The overall theme on "the interface of research, writing and teaching toward revitalizing indigenous languages and cultures" provided an opportunity for educators, translators, creative writers, linguists, students and others interested in the well-being of Philippine languages and cultures to gather, learn from one another, and encourage one another on in their efforts. The organizers, Drs. Ping Delima and Tess Manansala of the UP Baguio College of Arts and Communication, are to be congratulated on a successful, if small, conference.

The fact that the conference was small is not surprising. Events devoted to the "smaller" languages of the world do not often attract large crowds. (Filipino, as a national language with multiple millions of speakers, does not fall into the "smaller" category, by the way. Still, concern was voiced at this conference for the plight of the national language in the face of renewed calls for maximizing the role of English in Philippine public education. More on this below.) There is good reason, however, for all of us to pay attention to the fate of the smaller, indigenous languages of the Philippines because the sobering fact is that many, if not most of them, could be classified as "endangered."

The latest edition of Ethnologue, which lists the world's languages along with certain basic information about each one, lists 175 Philippine languages, four of which are already extinct. To put these figures in their global context, consider some additional statistics gleaned from the Ethnologue... At least 6,912 languages are spoken in the world today. Five percent of these languages (347) have more than a million speakers each, and these languages account for 95 percent of the world's population. Half of the world's languages have fewer than 10,000 speakers.

Looking at figures such as these, along with observing the plight of indigenous languages in the Americas and Australia in particular, linguists and local language activists have sounded a global alarm. A middle-of-the-road estimate is that half of the world's languages could disappear in the next hundred years. Although complete agreement is elusive on what constitutes a threatened, endangered, or dying language, one key requirement for the survival of any language is clear - intergenerational transmission. A language cannot survive if it is not passed on to the next generation.

Think of your own network of friends and acquaintances. How many parents do you know who are not passing on their own "mother tongue" to their children by using it with them in the home? This is a warning sign. Other warning signs for smaller languages include a lack of official recognition, no standard written form, and absence of use in the formal educational system.

So what if half of the world's languages do disappear? Wouldn't that make it easier for all of us to communicate with each other? And wouldn't that lead to a more peaceful and prosperous world? Unfortunately, it's not as simple as all that. If we pay attention to history, we see that sharing a common language guarantees neither peace nor prosperity. The worst war in my own country's history (the US Civil War) was fought between those who shared a common language. From history we also learn that attempts to suppress a community's language and culture can also lead to great strife. Recognizing and allowing multiple languages and cultures to flourish provides a more promising pathway. Indeed, respecting the dignity of others and dealing justly with all bears far greater promise for peace and prosperity than implementing policies that, intentionally or otherwise, work toward the reduction of the world's languages. …

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