University of Adelaide
Language is an archaeological vehicle, full of the remnants of dead and living pasts, lost and buried civilizations and technologies. The language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history.
Russell Hoban (children’s writer, 1925-2011 – cf. Haffenden 1985: 138)
Linguicide (language killing) and glottophagy (language eating) have made Australia an unlucky country. These twin forces have been in operation in Australia since the early colonial period, when efforts were made to prevent Aboriginal people from continuing to speak their language, in order to ‘civilize’ them. Anthony Forster, a nineteenth-century financier and politician, gave voice to a colonial linguicide ideology, which was typical of much of the attitude towards Australian languages (Report on a public meeting of the South Australian Missionary Society in aid of the German Mission to the Aborigines, Southern Australian, 8 September 1843, p. 2, cf. Scrimgeour 2007: 116):
The natives would be sooner civilized if their language was extinct. The children taught would afterwards mix only with whites, where their own language would be of no use – the use of their language would preserve their prejudices and debasement, and their language was not sufficient to express the ideas of civilized life.
Even Governor of South Australia George Grey, who was relatively pro-Aboriginal, appeared to partially share this opinion and remarked in his journal that ‘the ruder languages disappear successively, and the tongue of England alone is heard around’ (Grey 1841: 200-201). What was seen as a ‘civilizing’ process was actually the traumatic death of various fascinating and multifaceted Aboriginal languages.
It is not surprising therefore that out of 250 known Aboriginal languages, today only 18 (7%) are alive and kicking, i.e. spoken natively by the community children. Blatant statements of linguistic imperialism such as the ones made by Forster and Grey now seem to be less frequent, but the processes they describe are nonetheless still active, let alone if one looks at the Stolen Generations between approximately 1909 and 1969.
There are approximately 7,000 languages currently spoken worldwide. 96% of the world’s population speaks 4% of the world’s languages, leaving the vast majority of tongues vulnerable to extinction and disempowering for their speakers. Linguistic diversity reflects many things beyond accidental historical splits. Languages are essential building blocks of community identity and authority. However, with globalization, homogenization and Coca-colonization there will be more and more groups added to the forlorn club of the powerless lost-heritage peoples. Language reclamation will become increasingly relevant as people seek to recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, and improve their wellbeing.
Revivalistics – including Revival Linguistics and Revivalomics – is a new interdisciplinary field of enquiry studying comparatively and systematically the universal constraints and global mechanisms on the one hand (see Zuckermann 2009), and particularistic peculiarities and cultural relativist idiosyncrasies on the other, apparent in linguistic revitalization attempts across various sociological backgrounds, all over the globe (Zuckermann & Walsh 2011).
Revivalistics combines scientific studies of native language acquisition and foreign language learning: language reclamation is the most extreme case of foreign language learning. Revivalistics is far more than Revival Linguistics. It studies language revival from various angles such as law, mental health, sociology, politics, education, colonization, missionary studies and architecture.
Why should we invest time and money in reviving languages?
1. Ethical reasons
Australia’s languages have not just been dying of their own accord, as many Australians and non-Australians believe. Many of the languages were destroyed by settlers of this land. We owe it to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to support the maintenance and revival of their cultural heritage, in this instance through language revival. To quote Nelson Mandela: ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ Every person has the right to speak their mother tongue, to express themselves in the language of their ancestors, not just in the language of convenience that English has become.
Language death means not only the loss of cultural autonomy, but also of spiritual and intellectual sovereignty. Cultural knowledge perishes, and therefore the direct connection to ancestors through language, often resulting in feelings of anger or isolation. Through the prejudices of colonists, so much pride and cultural autonomy was lost along with heritage that can never be reclaimed. Through supporting language revival we can right some small part of the wrong against the original inhabitants of this country and support the wishes of their ancestors with the help of linguistic knowledge. We can appreciate the importance of Indigenous languages and recognize their importance to Indigenous people and to Australia.
An enactment of a new governmental statute-based ex gratia legislation ought to be established in order to pay compensation for the lost Aboriginal languages (Zuckermann and Shakuto, forthcoming). The proposed legislation can be colloquially called Native Tongue Title, modelled upon the established concept of ‘Native Title’, the recognition by Australian law that some Indigenous people have rights to, and interests in, their land that come from their traditional laws and customs. Deontologically, the Australian government ought to compensate Indigenous people not only for the loss of tangible land, but also for the loss of intangible langue (language). Such legislation will recognize the Indigenous people’s rights to revive or maintain their languages, and the compensation money can be used to support reclamation and linguistic empowerment efforts. The enactment of new legislation would help reinstate the Indigenous peoples’ authority and ownership of their cultural heritage. One should also note that in case of linguicide, it is much harder to prove continuity in Native Title cases.
Despite being aware of the people-land-language trinity, I propose that ontologically, the loss of language is more severe than the loss of land. When the land is lost, it is still there, albeit mined or abused by others. When a language is lost, even though the ownership (rather than usership) still exists, the language is not there anymore, let alone the loss of cultural autonomy, spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, ideas, values and experiences.
Australia ought to learn from New Zealand:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vernaculars should be defined as official languages of their state/territory/land.
- Signs (Linguistic Landscape) should be both in English and in the local Indigenous language.
2. Aesthetic reasons
Australia was once linguistically diverse, but this diversity has been vanishing rapidly. Most of Australia’s approximately 250 original languages are falling asleep, or have already become ‘sleeping beauties’. The linguist Ken Hale, who worked with many endangered languages and saw the effect of loss of language, compared losing language to bombing the Louvre.
When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It’s like dropping a bomb on a museum, the Louvre.
(Ken Hale, The Economist, 3 November 2001)
A museum is a repository of human artistic culture. Languages are even more important since they store the cultural practices and beliefs of an entire people. In Australia, information relating to food sources, surviving in nature and dreamtime often passes away when language perishes.
A study by Boroditsky and Gaby (2010) found that speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, a language spoken in Pormpuraaw on the west coast of Cape York, do not use ‘left’ or ‘right’, but always cardinal directions. Kuuk Thaayorre speakers are constantly aware of where they are situated, and this use of directions affects their awareness of time.
Different languages have different ways of expressing ideas and this can indicate which concepts are important to a certain culture. To demonstrate this variety, here are a few unique words from around the world:
- Mamihlapinatapai is a word in the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego in Chile and Argentina. It refers to ‘a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but have been unwilling to suggest or offer themselves’. This word can be broken down into smaller parts, or morphemes, thus: ma- is a reflexive/passive prefix (realised as the allomorph mam- before a vowel), ihlapi [iɬapi] ‘to be at a loss as what to do next’ (the lexical root), -n stative suffix, -ata achievement suffix, and -apai, a dual suffix, which has a reciprocal sense with ma- (circumfix).
- Persian nakhur is a ‘camel that will not give milk until her nostrils have been tickled.’
- Tingo, in Rapa Nui (Pasquan) of Easter Island (Eastern Polynesian language), is ‘to take all the objects one desires from the house of a friend, one at a time, by asking to borrow them, until there is nothing left’ (De Boinod 2005).
Such fascinating words should not be lost as they are important to the cultures they are from and beautiful to outsiders. Through language maintenance and reclamation we can keep important cultural practices and concepts alive.
3. Utilitarian benefits
Language revival benefits the speakers involved through improvement of wellbeing, mental health and cognitive abilities. It reduces delinquency and increases cultural tourism. Language revival has a positive effect on the mental and physical wellbeing of people involved. Participants develop a better appreciation of and sense of connection with their cultural heritage and tradition. Reacquiring their ancestors’ tongue can be an emotional experience and provide people with a strong sense of pride and identity. As the Aboriginal politician Aden Ridgeway said, ‘language is power; let us have ours!’ (Ridgeway 2009). Small changes can impact people in big ways. A participant at a Barngarla Aboriginal language reclamation workshop in May 2012 (Port Lincoln, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia) wrote that she found learning the language ‘liberating’, that it gave her a ‘sense of identity’ and that ‘it’s almost like it gives you a purpose in life’. Another participant said: ‘Our ancestors are happy.’
There are various cognitive advantages to multilingualism. Several studies have found that bilingual children have better non-linguistic cognitive abilities compared with monolingual children (see, e.g., Kovacs and Mehler 2009) and improved attention and auditory processing (see, e.g., Krizman et al. 2012):
The bilingual’s enhanced experience with sound results in an auditory system that is highly efficient, flexible and focused in its automatic sound processing, especially in challenging or novel listening conditions.
Evidence shows that being bilingual or multilingual can slow dementia, improving quality of life for many and reducing money spent on medical care. In a recent study it was also found that decision-making biases are reduced when using a second, in this case non-native, language (Keysar et al. 2012):
Four experiments show that the ‘framing effect’ disappears when choices are presented in a foreign tongue. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native tongue, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language.
Two additional experiments show that using a foreign language reduces loss aversion, increasing the acceptance of both hypothetical and real bets with positive expected value. We propose that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does.
There are severe problems with mental health amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. According to the National Survey of Mental Wellbeing, 40% of Australians (not necessarily Indigenous) suffer from a mental disorder at some stage of their life. Furthermore, 20% of participants experienced some kind of mental disorder in the past 12 months. In comparison, 31% of respondents aged 15+ participating in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS, Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008) had experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress in the four weeks leading up to the interview alone (ABS Publication 4704.0). This is 2.5 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians. Language reclamation increases feelings of wellbeing and pride amongst Indigenous people. Many of them are disempowered because they ‘fall between the cracks’, feeling neither whitefellows nor in command of their own Aboriginal heritage. As Fishman (1990 – see 2006: 90) puts it:
The real question of modern life and for RLS [reversing language shift] is […] how one […] can build a home that one can still call one’s own and, by cultivating it, find community, comfort, companionship and meaning in a world whose mainstreams are increasingly unable to provide these basic ingredients for their own members.
It has been shown that people involved in Indigenous language reclamation see an improvement in non-language subjects, linked to educational empowerment and improved self-confidence. Educational success directly translates to improved employability and decreased delinquency. Approximately $50,000 per language per year was provided in 2010-11 by ILS (Indigenous Language Support) to 78 projects involving 200 languages. The cost of incarceration is $100,000 per person per year and the cost of adolescent mental health $1,395 per patient per day.
Cultural tourism already represents an important part of Australia’s economy with many tourists wishing to learn about Indigenous cultures during their stay. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures represent part of Australia’s image overseas and greatly contribute to the tourist dollar. We need to help preserve and revive these languages, and protect cultural knowledge in order to maintain this point of attraction. This tourism not only benefits the economy, but can also provide work and opportunities for Indigenous people.
Establishing Revivalistics in Australia is turning Indigenous Australians into experts of language revival, making language revival part of their cultural identity. They will then be able to assist others in language revival. Language revival itself has therefore the potential to become an important part of Indigenous pride, bringing many benefits to the wider community. It can help promote awareness and understanding of Indigenous languages and cultures. By improving mental health and social cohesion through language reclamation projects, we can decrease the amount of money spent on ill health and social dysfunction. Language revival can aid in ‘closing the gap’ and encourages cultural tourism whilst enriching Australia’s multicultural society.
Boroditsky, Lera and Gaby, Alice. 2010. ‘Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community’. Psychological Science. vol. 21 no. 11, pp.1635-1639
De Boinod, Adam Jacot. 2005. The Meaning of Tingo: And Other Extraordinary Words From Around the World. The Penguin Press: London.
Fishman, Joshua A. 2006. Language Loyalty, Language Planning, and Language Revitalization: Recent Writings and Reflections from Joshua A. Fishman, edited by Nancy Hornberger and Martin Pütz. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Haffenden, John 1985. Novelists in Interview. London – New York: Methuen.
Hallett, Darcy; Michael J. Chandler and Christopher E. Lalonde. 2007. ‘Aboriginal Language Knowledge and Youth Suicide’, Cognitive Development 22: 392-399.
Keysar, Boaz, Sayuri L. Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An. 2012. ‘The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases’. Psychological Science. Vol. 23 no. 6 pp. 661-668.
Kovács, Ágnes Melinda and Mehler, Jacques. 2009. ‘Flexible Learning of Multiple Speech Structures in Bilingual Infants’. Science. Vol. 325 no. 5940 pp. 611-612.
Krizman, Jen, Marian, Viorica, Shook, Anthony, Skoe E and Kraus, Nina. 2012. ‘Subcortical encoding of sound is enhanced in bilinguals and relates to executive function advantages’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol 109 no. 20 pp. 7877-7881. http://www.soc.northwestern.edu/brainvolts/documents/Krizman-2012-Subcortical%20encoding.pdf
Ridgeway, Aden. 2009. ‘Language is power; let us have ours’, Sydney Morning Herald. http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/language-is-power-let-us-have-ours-20091125-jrsb.html
Scrimgeour, Anne. 2007. Colonizers as Civilizers: Aboriginal schools and the mission to ‘civilise’ in South Australia, 1839-1845. PhD thesis. Charles Darwin University, Darwin.
Zuckermann, Ghil‘ad. 2009. ‘Hybridity versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns’. Journal of Language Contact Varia 2: 40-67. http://www.zuckermann.org/pdf/Hybridity_versus_Revivability.pdf
Zuckermann, Ghil‘ad & Walsh, Michael. 2011. ‘Stop, Revive, Survive!: Lessons from the Hebrew Revival Applicable to the Reclamation, Maintenance and Empowerment of Aboriginal Languages and Cultures’. Australian Journal of Linguistics 31: 111-127. http://www.zuckermann.org/pdf/Revival_Linguistics.pdf
Also published as Chapter 28 of Making Sense of Language Readings in Culture and Communication (2012), Second Edition, edited by Susan D. Blum: http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/he/subject/Anthropology/CulturalandSocialAnthropology/LinguisticAnthropology/?view=usa&sf=toc&ci=9780199840922
Zuckermann, Ghil‘ad & Monaghan, Paul. 2012. ‘Revival linguistics and the new media: Talknology in the service of the Barngarla language reclamation’, pp. 119-126 of Foundation for Endangered Languages XVI Conference: Language Endangerment in the 21st Century: Globalisation, Technology & New Media. Auckland, New Zealand. http://adelaide.academia.edu/Zuckermann/Papers/1971557/Revival_Linguistics_and_the_New_Media_Talknology_in_the_service_of_the_Barngarla_Language_Reclamation
How to cite this post:
Zuckermann, Ghil’ad. 2013. ‘Historical and moral arguments for language reclamation’. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2013/06/26/historical-and-moral-arguments-for-language-reclamation