Arts & Culture: Diversity Dialogue

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier

Shifting toward diversity

I have always considered myself as part of the universalist camp, a Chomskyan by heart. I appreciate and value the ability to diagram and break down language into its smallest parts. However, I have started to wonder if this activity is important.

When I first got into linguistics, I saw the concept of generative grammar, defined as an innate set of linguistic principles shared by all humans, as the great equalizer. I still strongly believe that humans are hard-wired to absorb any language, if exposed to it as children, in a very short amount of time. No matter if we hear one or ten languages, we will acquire them with little effort (note: it is common for multilingual children to start speaking later than their monolingual counterparts, but they will quickly catch up later). If one doubts my statements, one only needs to look at their own child and reflect on their rapid language advancement despite little to no formal instruction.

However, what generative grammar reveals about language acquisition also impacts how we view language itself. Since Chomsky excluded the meaning of language from generative grammar, we can diagram any sentence in any language in the same way. As a result, we can demonstrate that every language is composed of the same parts, essentially striping the language of individuality. This has been a very useful tool in revealing how humans can spontaneously create and understand language interactions rather than just memorizing sentences.

However, I fear by not recognizing this individuality of each language we are working ourselves out of a job. Some estimate by 2100 more than half of the current languages spoken will disappear. If this is true, we will have no languages to test our theories. So, we have to ask: should our primary duty of linguists be to simply classify and break down language? If we view all languages as equal, does it matter when one dies? Does it matter that some languages classify knowledge, such as varieties of medicinal plants, differently than we do in English? A pure Chomskyan would say it does not matter. I am starting to think it does.

So, now that I have started to question the view of universal grammar and find myself attracted to linguistic diversity rather than simplification, which makes me feel like I am leaving a church, where do I go? I have found a home in the areas of language planning and ecology.

Linguists have only recently started to investigate the ties between planning and ecology. In contrast to traditional language planning, which often refers to top-down government language polices, language ecology takes a more holistic approach that includes multilingual, community motivated, bottom-up planning. In addition, many language ecologists adopt the concept of linguistic human rights (LHR), which states that humans have the right to access their mother tongue, the ability to fully develop it, and the right to speak it. LHR also includes the right for people to access the official language of a country. A final aspect of LHR is related to language planning where there should be no forced language-shift, or rather a government does not have the right to force people to speak one language over another.

There are strong opinions about language and what languages are acceptable. We as individuals suggest how to regulate language all the time. We can find examples of emotional responses to language in the local chat-rooms where people complain about the language options given for automated telephone services. “Why should I have to push “1” for English? Isn’t this America?”

So, what are the arguments for accepting linguistic diversity? As put forth by Mulhlaulser (a champion of language ecology) there are four points to take into consideration when thinking why we should preserve language diversity: moral, scientific, economic, and aesthetic. First, if we accept the significant decline of linguistic diversity, we are severing future generations from the knowledge embodied in the world’s lesser-known languages. Second, by allowing languages to die, we are loosing medicinal knowledge and theoretical knowledge that could lead to potential scientific discoveries. For example, the study of some Australian Aboriginal languages concept of environment “could contribute significant insights to its understanding by white mainstream scientists” (Mulhlaulser, 333). Third, many will suggest that it is economically smart to reduce all administrative tasks into one language. If you prefer only short-term solutions, this would be a good solution. But, how many people can get jobs speaking Japanese or German? “ In a country with a population of 20 million, there may be room for 10,000 leaders with fluency in Japanese but perhaps not 100,000” (Mulhlaulser, 334). Finally, as with any area, we should value diversity going beyond “need” and “profit” adding an aesthetic appreciation for languages.

I hope in my following blogs to look at the linguistic diversity of the Southern Finger Lakes. If you are a member of a language community in our area and would like to be featured in this blog, please contact me.

Further things to look at and read:

National Geographic’s Webpage on Disappearing Languages

Organization that focuses its efforts on lingustic and biological diversity.

Language Account: A webpage I created where you can learn about language diversity through articles and videos as well as share your language stories

9 comments on “Shifting toward diversity

  1. Andew Mayer
    November 8, 2009

    Interesting article Mac. Nice job. Keep up the good research. I have a German friend teaching is Korean-German son both languages since he was born in 2004.

  2. Brian Barker
    November 8, 2009

    Concerning the preservation of linguistic diversity, can I point to the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO’s campaign.

    The commitment was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations’ Geneva HQ in September.

    Your readers may be interested in Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

  3. Mackenzie Bristow
    November 9, 2009

    Although Esperanto is interesting as it is created from a number of languages and does not carry the same baggage as English, it is still attempting to be a dominate lingua franca, which is not the solution.

  4. Ian Fantom
    November 10, 2009

    An excellent analysis. I, too, think that syntax and semantics are closely bound together. You can only take syntax so far. You only have to ask what part of speech ‘thank’ is (other than just ‘verb’) in ‘Thank God’ for that to become evident.

    The same example even applies in Esperanto, a language in which syntactic categories are made very explicit. Yet there is the expression “Dank’ al Dio”. If you ask people what the apostrophe stands for, you get the same nonplussed expression.

    Esperanto, by the way, is intended as an easily acquired second language, not as a language to supplant existing ethnic languages. Wide-spread use of Esperanto would help preserve the world’s linguistic diversity.

    I think it would be good if there were a linguistic project to conserve as much of each of the world’s dying languages as possible, not just the grammar and vocabulary, but recorded conversations taken in everyday use of the languages.

  5. Neil Blonstein
    November 10, 2009

    I don’t mind if 30 people dubious of Esperanto respond to this. I think I am a typical Esperantist. I spent about 15 years of my life studying in high school and college 3 languages: Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic. I spent 11 years in Israel and reached a high level of Hebrew proficiency but never felt competent in Spanish and Arabic (I can say a lot but can’t understand much.) In addition I have informally obtained basic level of communication in Portuguese and Yiddish. Most Americans are monolingual and I am happy to meet Esperanto speakers who usually know 3 or 4 languages. Esperantists are proud that smaller linguistic groups like Hungarians, Lithuanians and Catalonians are well represented in our community and feel that many smaller cultures should survive, translating their classics and writing originally in Esperanto. That is linguistic diversity.

  6. Phil Dorcas
    November 11, 2009

    I’m thankful that we have a language (Esperanto) which does not try to shove small ethnic languages aside, but strives to honor languages and cultures. We thank Esperanto for being a good step for many to learn other languages who could not do so otherwise. We are glad that it is neutral and doesn’t try to be a primary language. Thank you, Zamenhof.

  7. Maureen Edmonds
    November 11, 2009

    Wouldn’t the simplest argument for accepting linguistic diversity be simple practicality? It is only in the United States and a few other countries that we even have the notion that there should be one language…even countries that push their children to learn English also value the communicative and cultural value of their own language/languages. I do agree with Mackenzie that there should be a push for linguistic ecology, but in addition, procedures and policies need to be put in place that facilitate linguistic diversity in everyday interaction. I understand that I am speaking of a HUGE paradigm shift, but in my mind, it does no good to preserve a language if there is no place for it to be used. Look at Latin, or ancient Greek-once they became ‘dead’ languages, they disappeared.

    part of a language is the way that it changes as it is used in everyday life…this needs to be a part of linguistic ecology as well

  8. Ian Fantom
    November 12, 2009

    I agree with Maureen Edmonds when she says that it does no good to preserve a language if there is no place for it to be used. But Latin didn’t really become a dead language; it evolved into Italian, French, Spanish, etc. It was retained as Latin for a long time because of its usefulness in international communication amongst the elite, who had a good level of education and could cope with its complexities. It died at about the time that Newton started writing in English. Perhaps that was the beginning of the push for English as the international language.

    Maureen Edmond’s idea that procedures and policies need to be put in place that facilitate linguistic diversity in everyday interaction is, I’m sure, quite right. But to be able to do that, we need to understand how language politics works in practice. It is possible that many languages are being actively undermined, perhaps even by governments, in order to push the majority language. There is now considerable evidence that that could have been happening in the case of Esperanto.

  9. Deane Bristow
    November 14, 2009

    Back when I was young and feckless, I bemoaned what I saw as the lack of “culture” in my life. I saw people from other countries, Spanish and Chinese and the offspring of Northern and Southern European émigrés, celebrating their national identity and couldn’t find the kind of detail in my own white, working class life that made theirs seem so rich. I made the mistake of expressing this observation to my dear spouse, a historian of no small profile among the members of our collective family, causing her to just shake her head in dismay. I asked her what we celebrated that had the kind of content I attempted to describe. She confirmed what I already knew, that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees and to just take it easy even though she could see that I wasn’t buying that solution easily. Don’t forget, she said, if you’re going to pine over another culture, you may want to consider what you’re getting because; you get it all whether you want it or not.
    Years later I had a much better notion of what “culture” might be for my meting pot, mongrelized Caucasian self but then came daughter Mackenzie’s forays to Europe, Barack Obama and a recent multiracial winner of China’s version of American Idol. News of Europe reminded me that the majority (at least for the time being), culture on this shore thinks we only speak English in this country, Barack Obama reminded me that in the years of my childhood, a mixed race man was likely to draw comments from the adults when my family gathered no matter what his accomplishments and recently, a young woman from Shanghai named Lou Jing, drew an amazing amount of racially focused commentary from the people of her country who thought there was no cultural connection between them and this young woman of demonstrable talent and Chinese-African-American decent.
    In America, we’ve been at odds over someone else’s culture from the beginning. Early settlers on the East coast eventually taking issue with the culture of the original inhabitants because they occupied the land needed for, what else, expansion of Western Culture. And if you have a problem with members of another culture, one generally has a problem with the entire package, including the fact that they might speak their native language among themselves. Is that a problem, this automatic lapse into the familiar form of communication for people from another place, another culture?
    Apparently it is, otherwise we wouldn’t have the dramatic accounts in our cultural memory of the Zoot Suit Riots of more than half a century ago Los Angeles (say, where’d that name come from?) or righteous citizens of America rising to oppose multi-lingual education. Is it general xenophobia or questions over the use of tax dollars? It really doesn’t matter, I’m afraid but all of this takes it’s toll on everyone, regardless of whether their born here or recently arrived.. Let me stretch out for a metaphor here: if the Bell of Liberty is recast everyday from the substance of those living in it’s shadow, then part of the substance is the culture and language of those in the Bell’s shadow. In other words, if you come to these here Newnighted States, something’s going to give and there’ll be someone who will tell you what that’s going to be; most likely it’s your language.
    So what can you do if you want to retain your Hispanic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Belgian or Russian roots? You might want to start with your language because you won’t be able to preserve it in order to speak it without bringing up everything else about your native culture along the way. But even better would be a quid pro quo (will these foreign phrases never stop?). I’ll spare you the trip to the dictionary that you wouldn’t have needed just 30 years ago because it’s a Latin phrase (the Romans not the Puerto Ricans!) meaning “Something for something”. Keep your culture alive by offering to teach someone else, not of your own cultural background, your language. My Hispanic neighbor and I are doing this each week as we exchange food we’ve cooked and attempt to show the other how it’s done.
    Show others your culture and try to demonstrate what resonates and corresponds with the culture you’re living in. I think the exchange would preserve your language, remind the children in your family of a way of life they might have ignored by exposing them to the interaction and bring something to the community at large so we can move on to embrace and celebrate what happens when a multi-racial man steps forward to lead our country and a young woman who doesn’t looks like everyone else can performs her song.
    With any luck, someone will translate this to another language and post it elsewhere; I wouldn’t trust me to do it, I just speak English, sort of.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on November 8, 2009 by and tagged , , .
%d bloggers like this: