Oh, we got endangered languages / right here in New York City

« previous post | next post »

[ Note: the San Diego wing of Language Log Plaza is about as far from NYC as you can get in the continental U.S.; I just couldn't resist the title. ]

Surely, most if not all of our devoted Language Log readers have by now noticed the recent NYT story "Listening to (and Saving) the World's Languages", about some of the work being done by the Endangered Language Alliance to document and preserve endangered languages spoken in New York City. (And in case you hadn't noticed it, there it is. Check it out.)

There are no comments on the article directly, but there's a link to "Land of Lonely Tongues", an NYT City Room blog post (with a video clip and survey-based identification of "the least-spoken languages in New York") and there are 27 32 comments there as of this writing update. Several of them are friendly to endangered language research, but one early commenter ("155 in 55") calls the work "nonsense", wonders whether "the rest of the world [should] care", and claims that "[the] whole thing sounds like academia making work for themselves and justifying their existence." (Other commenters respond, and 155 in 55 engages again; read for yourself.)

We all have our own views on the value of endangered language research, and 155 in 55 is of course entitled to his or her own views on the matter. However, the claim that this is all just a ruse to give linguists something to do is spectacularly uninformed. Until very, very recently, documentation and preservation work on endangered languages has been some of the most underfunded and academically thankless work that a linguist can do; even now, with the relatively positive attention this work gets in the media and with a few more dedicated (but still relatively small) sources of funding available, the good folks who do this vital research find themselves struggling to justify the worth of many of the products of their work to their colleagues. The problem is acute enough to have prompted the Linguistic Society of America to propose the Resolution Recognizing the Scholarly Merit of Language Documentation, right now on the ballot for LSA members to vote on. (Note to LSA members: don't forget to vote before June 1.)

One of the linguists responsible for the positive attention that language documentation research has received lately is of course K. David Harrison, and there are two bits of news to share about his work. First, his 2008 book "When Languages Die" was reviewed in Science this week (apologies if you can't access it). Second, he has a new book to appear in September: "The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages" — pre-order your copy now.

[ Hat-tip to Grant Goodall and Barbara Partee. ]

[ Update: Arnold Zwicky writes to tell me that the article appeared on the front page of the hard-copy national edition of The New York Times, 4/29/2010. ]


  1. NemaVeze said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    Also from the "disrespect for linguistic diversity" department: "Why Waste Time on a Foreign Language," from last week's Washington Post.

  2. marie-lucie said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

    Readers of the WP article should also read the many comments disagreeing with the author. Many point out that it is not FL study itself that the author seems to dismiss, but the way languages are taught in many schools, as well as the lack of choice.

  3. Uly said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

    That editorial could easily be interpreted as "Because we only give a half-hearted effort into teaching languages, we'd do better to not teach them".

    Which I can agree with. Why make kids sit and "learn" something they aren't learning? Either teach it right – which means teach it early, and don't (as happened to me) re-teach the same year three years in a row because you assume nobody retained information over the summer – or spend the time on something else.

  4. Joe said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 3:53 am

    If you really want to get the blood boiling, look at what GWU is doing:


    PS: sorry, I should know this, but how does one make a hyperlink (as in NemaVeze's post) rather than just listing the URL?

  5. David Cantor said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 6:18 am

    Sitting in Switzerland, I have at times tried to explain to my colleagues the state of language education in the US. They think I am making it all up. Nearly everyone here learns at least three foreign languages by the time they reach 18, and to a level of fluency you'd be surprised to find in a college upperclassman majoring in a language. They take it for granted that there is a long-term economic advantage for them if they have these skills.

  6. Theo Vosse said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 7:58 am

    I'm not completely convinced by the arguments in favor of documenting nearly extinct languages (some of which go as far as suggesting valuable information about medicinal herbs would be lost forever), but the effort is so small (relatively speaking) and there is so little time left, that Pascal's wager applies here…

    WRT the foreign languages arguments: substitute foreign language by another topic (mathematics, native language, engineering, …) and see where the argument breaks. Who ever decided that students should only learn precisely the topics that'll serve them later in life? That's so Ayn Rand…

  7. NemaVeze said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 9:58 am

    @Theo: I noticed that in the WaPo article. Everything he says about foreign language is equally true of algebra, but nobody's saying that should be taken out of the curriculum.

    @Joe: you type it this way:

    <a href="http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/04/19/gwu">look at what GWU is doing.</a>

  8. Jim said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    'Nearly everyone here learns at least three foreign languages by the time they reach 18, and to a level of fluency you'd be surprised to find in a college upperclassman majoring in a language. "

    You find that in places like Nigeria and New Guinea, and for the same reason. You find it also in southern China, especially in Hong Kong and Shanghai, again for obvious reasons. You don't find it very much in northern China, for the same reason you don't find it much in the United States.

    Meanwhile in Europe English marches on and languages like Dutch and Danish are retreating from more and more domains. And to judge by all the squealing, French seems to be under some degree of threat (Not) (Thank God) Fortunately they are all pretty well documented already.

  9. Tom Vinson said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    Not algebra, but Tom Magliozzi (MIT engineering graduate, Car Talk) said once that calculus was a complete waste of time. But he wound up with an MBA, and he's hardly a typical engineer anyhow.

  10. Mark Nickelson said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

    The expiration of a language is usually lamented only in retrospect: It would be really swell to be able to trace Proto-Indo-European to its source, even if the evidence placed the Garden of Eden in Iran. In real time, it doesn't seem likely western civilization has the means to preserve an expiring language. Languages will evolve and expire, naturally. Can you visualize us designing the Space Shuttle or an open heart surgery protocol using Geoff Chaucer's Middle English? I can't.

  11. marie-lucie said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

    French seems to be under some degree of threat (Not)

    If you mean that English is replacing French, it is not (although more academic work is being done in French), but more than the high level of English borrowings, what I find disturbing is the amount of translationese (English to French) which seems to be accepted as normal: English structures are replacing French ones, and some of the latter are disappearing because they are not found in rapid, unidiomatic translations, so people are no longer reading them and therefore using them in their own spontaneous writing (in the press and in non-literary works).

  12. marie-lucie said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

    Mark Nickelson, Proto-Indo-European and Middle English, or Latin, did not expire, they just changed gradually through generations and generations of speakers in varied places and circumstances. Virgil and Cicero did not have a reason to talk about space exploration, but the Vatican manages to issue written statements in Latin about all kinds of modern subjects that the ancient Romans never imagined. New words are coined when circumstances demand them.

  13. MIchael C. Dunn said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

    There's also a big difference between not documenting an expiring language and seeking to maintain it as a living tongue. Cornish, Manx, and a ton of Native American languages have died out in the last 200 years, but Cornish and Manx have literatures, grammars, and dictionaries, while only a few American languages do. The shame is when a language disappears and we have no record of it. In theory, a language that is documented and survives as a literary or liturgical language can make a comeback, though Hebrew is pretty much the only one that has.

  14. Kutsuwamushi said,

    May 9, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    The shame is when a language disappears and we have no record of it.

    Sometimes I wonder, though: how many of those extinct, but documented, languages had unusual features that we simply didn't record because we didn't think to look for them? The more extensive the documentation, the more likely they'll be discovered, but… once the last speaker has died, you can no longer gather evidence to test new hypotheses; you have to make do with what was recorded before.

    I ran into this problem while I was trying to write a paper on deictic verbs. When I started, I understood the topic much less well than when I finished. As I read more about them, I discovered new approaches, and had to go back to the native speakers I had originally interviewed. If their languages had died out in that interval, I would have had a hard time answering my questions with what I had. (This is a trivial example because it was an undergrad paper on widely-spoken languages, but it's an illustration of what I mean.)

RSS feed for comments on this post