Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier
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 http://www.nationalgeographic.com/mission/enduringvoices/ Terralinga:
Organization that focuses its efforts on lingustic and biological diversity. http://www.terralingua.org/html/home.html
Language Account: A webpage I created where you can learn about language diversity through articles and videos as well as share your language stories http://languageaccount.wetpaint.com/