Why is the preservation and documentation of endangered languages important?
By Meisha Price
For linguists, it seems clear and unequivocal that every effort should be made to document and preserve endangered languages, however, it is also important to be explicit about the reasons to support these efforts. Asking why it is important to preserve endangered languages is akin to asking why the study of history is important, as language is a medium connecting past with present.
It is a well-established concept that language gives a voice to cultural identity. This means that people who speak the same language are united by sense of commonness. They are able to communicate and identify with each other more easily which facilitates and promotes social interaction. Without a common language, people, albeit from a common line of ancestry, may not recognise their commonality, making them feel as different as two strangers. A lack of a common language results in isolation and segregation of communities.
In the case of indigenous Australians, the reasons for younger generations not being instructed in their indigenous language are many and varied, not the least being the atrocities that occurred due to the forcible removal of children from their families by the Australian Federal and State government agencies and church missions, under the acts of their respective parliaments that resulted in the Stolen Generations.
However, still today generations of young indigenous Australians are not being instructed in the tongue of their forefathers, thus process of loss of cultural identity continues.
Often, due to a preference for a more dominant culture or language, younger generations reject the culture and language of their grandparents or parents facilitating a move away from the cultural values and norms of their community. This phenomenon is not isolated to indigenous Australian communities but can also be seen in migrant minority communities all over the world throughout history. Younger generations are also often lured away from their communities by educational or employment opportunities.
Once this occurs, due to language being an essential feature of culture and identity, the youth often lose a sense of personal history and belonging. The lack of a common language means that it is near impossible for the elders of the community to teach the youth their people’s history, ancestral beliefs, values, systems, foods, animals, the history of their land, traditional medicines or kinship concepts. This results in a cultural gap for all future generations. As Dr. David Harrison states in the clip provided: “Transmission of knowledge has been disrupted.”
In addition to this cultural argument for the preservation of endangered languages, there are many more reasons. The following is a summary of scientific, artistic and political-based reasons. Scientifically, these languages may provide linguists with invaluable insight into the links between these and other languages and therefore more may be learnt about the history of human world geography. Another reason is the availability of language data to use to study human language faculty and linguistic variety. Artistically, there is a desire to preserve the ancient songs, stories, idioms and sayings that are embedded in all languages; and, politically, attributing official status to languages assists in the prevention of language discrimination by allowing speakers of certain languages access to information, mass media, government services and education in their native tongue.
The recognition of the need to preserve these languages, then raises the question of how they to be preserved. In the clip, Dr. David Harrison can be seen gathering linguistic data from a surviving speaker of an endangered language, however, how useful is this data in ensuring that the language actually survives? Is this data to be used to teach people this language? If so, why to whom would it be taught? When and where would these people use it? Language is a living concept that relies on its usefulness and its need by people to survive. Children learn whatever language they need to in order to get what they want. Sadly, what most young people want is often measured in terms of financial and practical use. Who needs this language so much that they are going to breathe new life into it by using it as a means of communication? If the answer is no one, then the work of linguists such as Dr. David Harrison serves simply to ensure that endangered languages are notated in his Cyber Zoo of talking dictionaries. This does not equate to, or even compare to, the survival of the language. The difference is as big as preserving the Roman Coliseum for historical purposes or for a revival of its ancient uses!
In order to truly preserve endangered languages, they must be perceived to be of practical and /or economic value. Once this occurs, people will be flocking to learn them, just as they are to learn English in non-English speaking nations.