Around the world a host of grassroots actors and organizations have been mobilizing to combat the degeneration, decline and potential ‘death’ of minority languages. Minority language movements are rarely just about ‘saving’ languages per se. Rather, these movements are often engaged in organized and enduring efforts to re-define the practice of citizenship, promote alternative notions of nationhood and re-purpose public policies and institutions. While most of these movements face extraordinary challenges and dilemmas, many have also realized important social and political gains. Social movement scholars have much to contribute to the academic as well as political discussion on minority language issues yet their voices are acutely silent on linguistic issues. Social movement scholarship also has much to gain by taking a closer look at minority language movements. Over the next few months I will be writing about minority language movements for Mobilizing Ideas. I start with a brief and general overview of the topic so as to invite students, researchers and activists alike to consider this most compelling but yet often over-looked form of mobilization.
It is a commonly cited statistic among linguists and anthropologists that among the roughly 6,000 different human languages spoken at the start of the 21st century, at least half of these are in a severe state of decline and likely to be gone by the turn of the next century. Most of these languages are the native tongues of indigenous peoples living across impoverished and rural regions of the so-called ‘Global South’ or ‘Developing World’. Many, however, are minority languages spoken within some of the world’s wealthiest nations such as the United States, Canada, Japan, China, Australia, Russia and the countries of the European Union (For a global list of ‘endangered’ languages click here).
Clearly, languages don’t vanish or disappear like a misplaced or discarded object; they generally experience a gradual decline which can span several generations. While the factors contributing to minority language loss are myriad and complex, the global rise of state-based nationalism coupled with the forces of free-market capitalism, urbanization and transnational migration have all been persistently identified by scholars as some of the primary mechanisms leading to what some label ‘language death’.
The notion of languages ‘dying’ may sound exaggerated, alarmist, or even irrelevant to many folks. Indeed, the decline and disappearance of minority languages is sometimes framed as an ‘inevitable’ aspect of human evolution with larger ‘more useful’ languages winning out over smaller ‘less useful’ ones. This Darwinistic viewpoint is particularly salient among people who do not speak or identify with minority languages. The all too prevalent view of language loss as an unfortunate but inevitable aspect of ‘progress’ fails to take the human capacity for multilingualism into account, neglects the political dynamics which tend to drive language loss, and glosses over the strong emotional and cultural ties which bind people to language. A primary goal of minority language activists is thus not simply to encourage linguistic minorities to retain and pass on their languages but also to get people in the broader society to think differently about languages.
Minority language movements consist of organized and enduring efforts among grassroots actors to promote the socio-cultural revitalization and politico-legal recognition of linguistic minority communities. Within this context, a ‘minority’ language is not simply one with small numbers of speakers relative to larger populations of ’majority’ language speakers. Rather, a minority language is one characterized by low levels of cultural prestige (i.e. young people are ashamed or don’t want to speak the language) and a lack of institutional presence (i.e. the language is excluded and absent from public domains such as education, commerce and the media).
While it is tempting and not all together fallacious to argue that linguistic minorities ‘only have themselves to blame’ for the demise of their language, such a perspective is a gross over-simplification and distortion of the phenomenon of language loss. In short, people don’t merely choose to abandon minority languages because these languages are intrinsically less useful or valuable. People learn to feel shame and contempt toward their ancestral languages because these languages are stigmatized, scorned and marginalized in the broader society.
For linguistic minorities engaged in the struggle to resist and reverse processes of inter-generational language loss the notions of ‘linguistic survival’ and ‘linguistic rights’ are serious and contentious issues. A primary dilemma for minority language advocates is thus to get members of the public as well as political authorities, policy-makers, journalists, academics and other people of social influence to care about linguistic issues. In my future postings I will explore some of the struggles, strategies and successes which characterize minority language movements. Until then, I encourage readers to share their thoughts on this under-exlored topic and to contemplate the place of minority language advocacy in a broader transnational movement for global justice.