Tuesday, July 16, 2024

On losing languages

The world’s diversity of languages is rapidly shrinking but, as Wayne Trotman reports, one writer has done his best to catalogue those that remain



Lyle Campbell

Edinburgh University Press, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-4744-9415-1 (paperback)

ISBN: 978-1-4744-9416-8 (webready PDF)

In his foreword to this thought-provoking title, anthropologist Wade Davis, a close friend of the author’s, lists a few facts. Over 3,500 of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages currently spoken are kept alive by just a fifth of 1% of the global population, while 50% of the languages are not being taught to children. As these languages disappear on a regular basis, so too, of course, do instalments of what Davis terms, “the totality of humankind’s collective experience”. “To lose a language,” he continues, “is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre.” I shall leave you to sit back and reflect on that comment for a moment.

And if, dear reader, you feel climate change, for example, is something to get out on the street to shout about, then bear in mind that it is increasingly likely that in some parts of the world there may one day be no one with the words to do this. Yet, as Davis points out, more money is spent on searching for the endangered spotted white owl than keeping endangered languages alive. Thank goodness, then, for heroes such as Lyle Campbell and his work in the past 50 years on documenting this dismal global linguistic plight.

“Of the 400 independent language families known in the world, 23% are gone 

Throughout this title, Campbell comes across as an extremely humble and almost reluctant writer, one who perhaps finally realised he had an interesting tale to tell. And what a tale it is. His work is based on the simple (if we can use such a word to describe his ordeals) tracking down and interviewing of a single native speaker, preferably in their native context and definitely not an air-conditioned hotel suite. As if Campbell had not bothered to read his friend’s foreword, he further shocks us early on by pointing out perhaps an even more alarming fact that, of the 400 independent language families known in the world, 23% are gone forever; and more rapidly so in just the last 60 years. But this book is not all doom and gloom.

As most of his research has been carried out in South America, Campbell proves most entertaining in his first few chapters when he outlines his early forays into the Amazon jungle on bush planes that sound like they might fall apart at any moment, landing on runways that barely exist. His experiences with being accused of being a shamanic witch and likely people-eater led him rapidly to believe it was helpful to remain in good favour with those helping him generate data.

Although personally I had no such extreme encounters with my own research groups, my supervisor said more or less the same thing: like Campbell, a chocolate bar often seemed to do the trick. It’s of interest to note, however, that just like the mendacious research interviewee one tends to come across from time to time, Campbell was almost hoodwinked by some who – in it for the money – claimed they spoke a previously unknown dialect, but in fact did not.

One actual discovery made by Campbell I found remarkable. In Misión La Paz, Peru, most conversations are multilingual. Each participant in a conversation typically speaks his or her own language, regardless of the language spoken by those addressed, and the other participants in the conversation each speak their own particular language in return. People communicate regularly with speakers of different languages, but commonly not in the same language as the one addressed to them. This is known as dual-lingualism and imagine the chaos arising in the ELT classroom should it ever arrive.

Linguist on the Loose is one of the most fascinating titles I’ve ever had the pleasure to review.

Wayne Trotman is a teacher educator at Izmir Katip Çelebi University, Izmir, Turkey.

Images courtesy of PHOTO SHUTTERSTOCK and Ron
Wayne Trotman
Wayne Trotman
Wayne is a teacher educator at Izmir Katip Celebi University in Izmir, Turkey. Wayne has been involved in language teaching both in the UK and overseas since 1981. He holds an MSc in TESOL from Aston University and a PhD in ELT and Applied Linguistics from the University of Warwick.
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