The Inuit, whose culture revolves around the arctic world, have dozens of words for snow - this sort of technical knowledge allows quick and accurate transmission of conditions and training in survival.
In Western terms, one remembers that Jesus Christ was said to be "The Word," yet in the original Greek this indicates not only a spoken word but also the Logos - the root term for intellectual reason, for Meaning within context (be that the context of a sentence, a life, a history, or a universe); logos was rational order. The difference between saying that a religious figure is the Word (which at its most profound seem to indicate a kind of command or definition) and saying that he is the universal intellect or the ordering principle of the universe is profoundly different. The loss of a language which has a term for the universal intellectual Order leads to the loss of an entire way of approaching the universe. (Luckily, Greek and its attended philosophies, including the Stoicism which focused on Logos, were largely preserved by those who honored its contributions). Many dying languages contain thoughts that are no less profound. For example, the Inuit language has different terms for knowledge which could allow for a far more reasoned debate between two people who both claimed to "know" the truth. Utsimavaa is to know from experience; nalunaiqpaa is to be "no longer unaware" of something; (Walker) other words cover knowing from reason or tradition. The Boro language of India has a word, Onsra, which means "to love for the last time." (Walker) What poetry a word like this carries!
The loss of these languages is the loss of a way of thinking about and speaking about the world.
When the language is lost, the pattern of thought is lost. Culture is not, at its base, about tribal uniforms or various foodstuffs. It is not really about one's style of craft-making or music, though these generally are closely related to world view. Culture is about the way in which a group thinks about the world - and as thought is dependant on language, culture is inherently about language.
Language not only defines world views and philosophical approaches to life, it may also show the way in which a culture treats the world - the very meaning of words defining relationships between man and his environment. This is evidenced in the following quote:
Language, more than any other single human creation, is the living artifact of a culture. Constructed over successive generations, it embodies the cumulative memory of a people's beliefs and knowledge, their stories, their names for things, the conventions that they use to tell each other about the world. A young Maidu named Farrell Cunningham, for instance, has used his knowledge of Maidu plant names to unlock the secrets of traditional ecology; the fact that the Maidu name for "pine tree" translates as "wind-lessening tree," he says, indicates that the pine was used to shelter oak trees, thus protecting the acorn harvest. (Slater)
Language is, of course, also related to culture in the fairly obvious terms of group identity and the preservation of tradition. Many cultures have oral traditions which have been passed down from generation to generation. For example, Finnish story tellers for well over a two thousand years sang the same epic songs about the creation of the world and the ancient heroes. The last singer of these old songs died about a hundred years ago. Luckily, much of the epic cycle was transcribed and preserved in the Kalevala. One may see the wealth and beauty of old songs by considering that this epic poem has long been credited as one of the primary sources for J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga, which recently became a blockbuster phenomena, and has always been a best-seller. However wonderful the preservation of some scrap of Finnish may be, it is but a little improvement in the scope of the world-wide annihilation of oral traditions. As thousands of languages die out, they take with them millennia of oral tradition and other cultural wealth such as religious rites spoken in that language.
By removing a people from their native way of thinking and from their native history, and finally giving them a homogenous global language that removes the barrier between their people and all other peoples, one effectively kills the culture. This sociocide, or death of a society, should be considered a serious threat and harm. There's a tragicomic story that comes...
The story tells of coming into a village where a parrot was talking away, with remarkably proficiency. He "asked the villagers what it was saying. None knew since the parrot spoke Atures and was its last native speaker." (Walker) This story has a certain aptness to it - with the sudden rise in globalization and the rate at which the young are not being educated in their native languages and only the slowly dying-off elderly still speak the tongue, we run a global risk of creating a world where only parrots - be they the long lived Amazon sorts or the mechanical parrots of tape recorders and linguistic records - will remember the old languages or truly remain a part of the old peoples.
Can teaching EFL be a threat to local ways of life and languages?
If the globalization of the English language indeed threatens other languages with extinction, one must ask if the active teaching of English as a second or foreign language is likewise destructive. Is the EFL teacher who goes to Japan or India to hold conferences guilty of cultural genocide aimed at those people? Are EFL teachers the rearguard of the British Empire still at work slashing and burning through the colonies, or are they perhaps the first attacks of the new American Hegemony? One might immediately think that this sounds a little extreme. Certainly, most people attending EFL seminars are there of their own free will, and it's hard to imagine committing any sort of -cide, let alone some form of genocide, on a consenting audience. Of course, activists would argue that assisted cultural suicide is a form of cultural genocide, just as assisted suicide has frequently been judged murder in America. However, in all truth English language seminars for adults are probably not the most significant risks to the linguistic integrity of a nation, as they seldom create such as deep understanding of the language that students are likely to adopt it as their vernacular at home and in relationships with friends. A far more serious issue is that of indoctrinating children into the dominant English language when they are sufficiently young that the language becomes their primary vehicle of speech.
As mentioned earlier, English education is common in school systems globally. While in many cases this education coexists peacefully with education in the native-language in much the same way that American schoolchildren may be taught Spanish or French without jeopardizing their natural English-language skills. However, in many cases rather than merely teaching English as a second language or as a subject, schools may entirely educate non-English speaking children in English, requiring the immersion of the student in English in order to succeed in school. In these cases, English may be the language which children speak most frequently outside the home and with their peers, and will almost inevitably be the language that they teach to their own children.
Training children so extensively in English as children (which is extremely common in countries where English is the official or national language) may serve to eradicate their natural languages, as English is increasingly seen as the only appropriate, intellectual, or public language. One African musician, Freddy Macha, speaks of how many of his friends do not speak the native languages to their children because they do not want to confuse them. He quotes these friends as saying "I can't be speaking my own African language. In school they are supposed to learn good English." So it is that the extensive teaching of English to school children can quickly result in the loss of their native languages and its transmission between generations.
In some cases, English-only education has been used to intentionally attack the culture of a people. During the last century, for example, thousands of young native Americans were removed from their parents and sent to boarding schools where they were immersed in English, punished for speaking their native tongue, and generally educated to believe that their native languages were primitive and ought no longer be spoken. Horror stories from this time attest to students being beaten for speaking their native languages, or returning home having forgotten much of their mother tongue. The justification given for this by the Federal Government? That the forced use of English would enable the Indians to be held under the "military hand" of government and forcibly…
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