The Language Life Cycle

December 2, 2011 by totalityservices

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The life, death and maintenance of languages is a concept that has kept me amazed since childhood. With recent talks of language extintion I explore the language life cycle to see how the world’s many languages can be kept alive.

The Life Of Languages

Since I started writing for a translation company, my childhood interest in languages was renewed.

Prior to embarking on writing, I was in marketing communications for over 10 years. I entered it exactly at the point when the brand-marketing giants started transitioning from marketing within individual countries to marketing across regions.

They were testing all sorts of marketing communication models (and still are) trying to find ways to make one idea work across markets.

It became de rigeur to provide sub-titling for the television adverts that we made. We had to repetitively translate scripts into several languages, which we often managed by sending scripts to several of the offices around the region.

It was then that I started to become more and more curious about the differences in the way different races express themselves. As our work involved brand personalities, sometimes there were concepts that could be readily explained with one word in one country but completely unexplainable in another.

It also amazed me at how difficult it was to consistently capture emotional intent across countries when it came to writing and translating scripts. It was hard enough trying to find the right words to ensure the scripts were on the same level creatively and emotionally – we were also trying to make them fit within the same airing time such as 30 seconds. Sometimes, we had to make do with ‘ok/will do’ translated scripts, as we simply did not have time to re-write translations till the cows came home. To think, this was a problem that we were encountering in countries where their native languages were alive and well and spoken by individuals in the millions.

While the scenario of adverts being translated to rarer languages is likely to never happen due to the lack of commercial viability issues, it did make me wonder about other fields where the life of languages would be of paramount importance. Fields such as archaeology, geology, biology and anthropology where many smaller cultures that rely on oral traditions are staple sources of information. It made me think about how much we may be losing in terms of knowledge of Cambodian art and culture not to mention the chance to learn more about the Cambodian biodiversity.

It seems to me that what the world knows about Cambodia has been trapped in time – that of the killing fields. Regrettably it is a memory that people would rather remember only as a reminder of what should never again come to pass.

Life And Death Of A Language

When I started to come into contact with the translation industry, I began to come across such case studies. Khmer to English translations for example is extremely difficult to take on as a project, not because there is a dearth of Khmer speakers but because there is a dearth of Khmer speakers who can also fluently speak English. This is further complicated by the fact that as Cambodia remains one of the countries relatively closed off to the world, it is difficult to also find field specialists such as archaeologists or even engineers with the technical linguistic facility to translate such projects. Another example would be Pashto and Dari (the 2 main languages of Afghanistan).

In the field of politics, where political agreements need to be hammered out within war stricken zones or even for cases as simple as political asylum, the difficulty of working with languages from closed off territories also presents itself.

Beyond the issues of government policies and economically closed off territories, I am curious about how even rarer languages will fare when the last few who speak them eventually fade.

For example, Chamicuro used to be widely spoken in Peru as a native language. However, with the adoption of Spanish as the main language, the older segment of the population now only speaks Chamicuro. Children are now only speaking Spanish, as such; Chamicuro has now been listed as a language in danger of extinction.

The most extreme cases would be languages like Kaixana (previously spoken by the people of a remote Brazilian province) or Taushiro (also of a remote Peruvian province), are both listed as having only one known remaining speaker therefore are now doomed to eventual extinction.

The demise of both languages is not like that of Chamicuro that was replaced by another language spoken by a wider segment of the population. Both languages are doomed to die because the tribes that speak them are close to extinction.

Language, after all is intrinsically tied to the lives of the humans that speak it. In a sense, it is also like a living being. Its daily usage is critical to its growth and life much like water and food is for us humans.

Intermarriage, migration, political upheaval and changes in government policies – all these affect the life cycle of languages. However, human intervention can easily subvert these factors. For as long as people are willing to speak a language, it will live. However, what can one do when the people who speak a language die out? The death of a people and their language means the loss of stories, folklore and oral tradition that are a rich part of our history as humans.

On one hand, we can view the loss of such cultural hallmarks as a simple part of life and evolution. Tribes and their languages die out much in the same way that animals we have never seen are rendered extinct in various parts of the world that humans have either not set foot on or have levelled off for a new set of condominiums. If that were the only reason that languages die, it might be easier to contend with than cases such as that of Chamicuro, which is dying out because it is being replaced by a more commercial one.

Keeping A Language Alive

This scenario has become more relevant and resonant with me as a Filipino migrant. The past fifteen years has seen millions upon millions of Filipinos leaving the Philippines, chasing after economic opportunities.

Almost every significant nation in the world has seen a growing population of Filipinos settling in. I think that immigration, in this day and age of cheaper transportation costs, growing demand for labour in various fields and the constant search for economic opportunities, will only find more people leaving for other shores.

I suppose I am beginning to worry about our own language because there are very few Filipinos who teach the language to their children when they start having their own families in the countries they migrated in. Further to this is the fact that the national language, based on the Tagalog language, is becoming more widely spoken even in the provinces further out of Manila.

A friend of mine comes from a northern province which is about three hours drive from Manila and she told me that Tagalog is more widely spoken now than Ilocano, which is the predominant language of the north.

To the unitiated, the Filipino language, based on Tagalog, is a fairly recent lingual phenomenon. It was only in the 1970s that its use was instituted nationally and even up to the 80s, many provinces held fast to their own languages particularly in the Visayas who resisted speaking Tagalog for the longest time. 15 years later, Tagalog is now being spoken across the country.

If you knew me, you would probably be remarking how strange it is for me to be bothered about the health of the Filipino language. In the past ten years, aside from a brief 2 years, I have not lived in my own country. Coming from a northern family, I learned to speak English (and Ilocano, the northern Filipino language completely different from Tagalog) first and only learned Tagalog when I entered primary school. Tagalog was barely spoken in our home, until my brothers and I started speaking it at home to our elders eventually when we grew older.

Strangely, I have never attempted to write in Filipino, as my confidence in my facility of it is very low. It also seems strange that I am fiercely proud to be Ilocano yet I can barely speak our Northern language. It may seem facetious for me to be writing about this then but the longer I have stayed away from my own country though, the more I have learned to appreciate how romantic, lyrical and eloquent our language is. Truly it seems, you begin to appreciate what you have after it is taken away from you.

This is why I have great admiration for a cousin who married a Swiss gentleman. They live in Switzerland where they are raising their 2 young children aged 2 and 4. My cousin had firmly made her mind up that her children speak Filipino just as well as French and English fluently. She, together with her strictly instructed Filipino au pair only speak to her children in Filipino. As a result, both of her children speak Filipino as fluently as any other child who had grown up in the Philippines in spite of the fact that they visit the country only once a year.

I guess as with all things in life, it comes down to personal will. Languages can be kept alive no matter where you live or whoever it is you married. Anything, whether it is a memory, a dream or a language can be kept alive – if you are willing.

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