Bilingualism key to language survival

Here’s an interesting article from ABC News Science Online (written by Anna Salleh) about the importance of bilingualism in preventing the decline and extinction of languages:

Dr Jorge Mira of the University of Santiago de Compostela and colleagues report their mathematical model of language competition on the pre-press website

There are about 6,000 different languages in the world, but just a handful, including English, dominate.

Some mathematical models have shown how dominating languages can lead to the decline and extinction of less popular languages.

Such models seem to explain, for example, the crushing of Scottish, Gaelic and Welsh by English.

But Dr Mira and colleagues say this is not necessarily so.

They say earlier mathematical models did not account for bilingualism, which allows two languages to co-evolve.

In their mathematical model, Dr Mira and colleagues found that two languages can co-exist if they are sufficiently similar and there is a stable group of bilingual speakers.

“[The results] suggest that the competition between two languages does not inevitably lead to the extinction of one of them,” say the researchers.

Bilingualism key

Australian linguist, Professor Nicholas Evans, from the Australian National University in Canberra agrees that bilingualism is key to the survival of non-dominant languages.

But he does not agree with Dr Mira and colleagues’ conclusion that languages have to be necessarily similar to coexist.

He points to the coexistence of Latin in Hungary until the 1880s, despite Latin and Hungarian being far from similar.

Professor Evans says a language is more likely to survive when it has a “specialised domain of use”. In Hungary, for example, Latin was used as the language of officials.

“It’s important to have a clear context in which the choice of language is determined,” says Professor Evans, author of the book Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us.

Professor Evans also points out the continued coexistence of English and Indian languages and of Yiddish and German.

He says while Yiddish and German are similar in some respects they are conceptually quite different.

“Yiddish is a vehicle is of Hebrew culture, German is a vehicle of Christian culture,” Professor Evans said.

He says their survival relies on the importance of these languages to specific communities.

Professor Evans cites French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s view that language is always pulled in different directions.

“A language exists to enable us to communicate with as many people as possible, but also to tell us who we are,” he said.

“That’s why at the same time English is spreading, it’s getting more and more local varieties than ever.”

Monolingual culture

Professor Evans says there is a harmful “ideology” that speaking just one language is the norm.

“The biggest impediment to the survival of small languages is the monolingual culture,” he said.

Professor Evans says because large languages dominate the world economically, the speakers of those languages can afford to be monolingual, but he says monolingualism is a “historical aberration”.

“If you go back to Shakespeare’s time English-speakers were famous multilingual people,” he said.

Professor Evans says hunter-gatherers typically involve 100 to 300 people speaking a language, marrying outside the group, drawing their spouse from another language and having parents and grandparents that speak different languages.


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