Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Language Loss, Western Domination Narrow Cultural Diversity 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday,  Monday, April 23 / 12

Zack Gross

As a registered member of the “language police,” always ready and willing to correct someone’s bad spelling or poor grammar, I am pleased to say that April 23rd is English Language Day at the United Nations.  This date was chosen as it is traditionally celebrated as William Shakespeare’s birthday. 

While language is recognized as a vital part of any culture, we live in a world where people’s mother tongues are dying off, and therefore we are losing the knowledge and skills these cultures possess, the histories they have lived, their traditions, memories, ways of thinking and ways of expressing themselves.

The UN has six official languages, as agreed to in 1946 – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish – each with its own official day.  The motivation for these six special days is to promote the equal use of the official languages, but English and French are recognized as the working languages of the UN, and English as the current “world language.”  While it is estimated that 7,000 languages still remain in use today around the globe, half of these are expected to die out within a few generations and almost all of these thousands of languages are spoken now by just five percent of Earth’s population.

Only a few hundred languages are actually used publicly and in education systems, given that the planet has just over 200 countries.  In our new digital age, less than half of these actually have a place on the Internet.  To remedy this loss of linguistic and cultural diversity, UNESCO proclaimed International Mother Language Day in 1999 and it has been observed every February since, corresponding to the day in 1952 when students, demonstrating for the recognition of Bangla as one of two official languages of Bangladesh, were shot down by police.  2008 was proclaimed as UN International Year of Languages, sparking a number of initiatives in research and education related to literacy, translation, language rights, cultural heritage and preservation of endangered languages.

An advocate of the preservation of indigenous languages is Wade Davis, a world-renowned anthropologist who has lived among traditional cultures in many countries. 

Davis, a Canadian, recently delivered the CBC Massey Lectures, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, and is currently a scholar-in-residence at the University of Winnipeg.  He says that just as our biosphere, our natural world is being eroded, so is our “ethnosphere,” our global cultural landscape.  He argues that we need traditional knowledge such as language and culture, in order to learn how to cope with challenges that humanity has faced, faces now and will in the future.  As well, he says that we have drifted into a blandly generic world of corporate, consumer culture where everyone is becoming somewhat the same. 

Rediscovering and celebrating the institutions and understandings that we have lost can only enrich and re-establish our cultural diversity.

One of the striking examples that Wade uses in The Wayfinders (hence the title) is of Polynesian outrigger navigators who ply the waters of the South Pacific without benefit of mechanical or electronic equipment.  Wade traveled with these indigenous sailors as they crossed huge stretches of open water and found their destinations based on the stars and on their counting of time elapsed.  He asks:  Can we allow this kind of “native” knowledge to be lost?  What if we need this kind of thinking again?

A large part of the problem is our own Western arrogance.  We see ourselves as the ultimate result of modernization, the next generation of perfection of the species.  Those who don’t become like us (or who don’t want to become like us) are at best “quaint” and, at worst, failures.  We want to discard what has been learned over the generations as outdated, as we possess a linear view of history and development.  Wade says that it is the dominant power of industrial, colonial cultures, not the lack of value of traditional ones that overwhelms and pushes aside our humility and our diversity.

Western “man” has spread disease, modern weapons and environmental destruction over the past 500 years.  We just happen to call it discovery, conquest and economic development.  What indigenous peoples and traditional cultures want is not necessarily to be like us, but to have what they perceive to be the benefits we have accrued, sometime it can be argued at their expense:  longer lifespans, better healthcare and education, security and peace, more sustainable livelihoods and good food in their bellies.

These are not simple concepts.  Westerners seek uniformity in humanity, especially everyone adopting our ways of speaking, thinking and acting.  We do ourselves a disservice for, in the diverse cultural choices “out there,” may be our salvation.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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