How To… Keep a Language Alive

July 19, 2013 by admin

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It is estimated that there are approximately 7000 languages spoken in the world today, although about 1000 of these only have a few hundred speakers. It is also estimated that 25 languages are lost every year, which is a sad thought. Are we moving towards a new chapter of globalisation where only a handful of languages are spoken by all?


Most world languages are very old and have been constantly evolving since words were first uttered. Language is tied in with culture and identity; what you speak forms part of who you are. Many speakers of indigenous languages, such as Maori, are fiercely proud of their heritage and are making many efforts in trying to promote their mother tongue and to keep it alive.


There are several theories as to why languages lose popularity and die off: loss of older native speakers, the language not being spoken at home and taught to new generations, people avoiding learning the language for social or professional reasons, lack of relevance to modern society to name but a few. Those that do try and keep a language alive have recognised the need to modernise and make the language more appealing and relevant to the user.


At the beginning of July was Maori Language Week, a week used to promote awareness around ‘Te Reo’ and to create enthusiasm for new and existing native speakers. Te Reo, a language brought to New Zealand by settlers circa 1280 AD has Eastern Polynesian roots, and though once spoken by most, it has declined rapidly despite efforts by the government. In 1987, it was given an official language status, yet despite this and other initiatives a report in 2011 by the Waitangi Tribunal declared that the language had reached crisis point.


During the week the language was promoted using contemporary methods e.g television and the internet. Humorous videos and Youtube clips, Facebook pages, interactive activities to find a Maori name for your child- all modern marketing methods- were used as promotional tools. Furthermore, music combining contemporary sounds with Maori performing arts and Te Reo has been performed by a group of Maori women keen to keep their language alive. The reasoning behind their methods: Music can speak to anyone regardless of language. An old Maori proverb is ‘Kia mau ki to Maoritanga’ (Hold fast to your culture), this can be possible by mixing the old with the new.


Te Reo is by no means an isolated case, revival and revitalisation initiatives are in place around the world. For example the Wampanoag tribal language in New England has undergone a revival thanks to the existence of written documents and teaching projects spear headed by remaining Wampanoag speakers. Closer to home languages such as Manx (Isle of Man) and Guernisais (Guernsey) have dwindling speakers. But, though language death may be imminent many argue that this is not such a bad thing.


As is the case in nature death is a natural part of life, and in preserving languages and putting them on a life support machine are we just prolonging the inevitable? Evolution and development has not come about with us clinging to the past. It could be seen as a case of the survival of the fittest, languages that are relevant to modern times and especially for younger generations who want to fit more into the mainstream professionally and personally will go the distance. Communities will adapt and mould them for their needs, and it is only the community that will sustain a language.


So how do you keep a language alive? In essence many efforts can be made by official bodies, governments and institutions to provide status for minority languages and to promote use, but in the end it is in the hands of the people, if they want to speak it they will. And only then will the language, traditions and identities associated with it live on.

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