Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Protecting endangered languages - for health, for development and for counselling

In preparation for International Mother Tongue Day tomorrow I've just been visiting the Foundation for Endangered Languages Website and also looking at material on the Rosetta Project which seeks to build an archive of all documented human languages and there is also more on language and development on the Partners in Language Development site.

Yesterday lunchtime the WCC launched the French edition of an HIV/AIDS pastoral counselling manual called Listening with Love (well in French it's called Ecouter avec Amour). Nyambura Njoroge who coordinates the WCC's EHAIA programme spoke about how this valuable tool has been translated into many languages to help churches build capacity in this key area of health and accompaniment. Later in the discussion Manoj Kurian who works more widely on HIV/AIDS with the WCC said how important it is in Africa, Asia and many other places to translate health and counselling material into local languages. So I went to host and interpret for a book launch and ended up talking about languages (and eating the delicious cakes made by my colleague Linda's mother!).

Anyway below I have posted a long extract from the Foundation for Endangered Languages site which points out that when a language dies much more is lost than simply linguistic knowledge. For health, for development and for counselling keep talking, protect your mother tongue.

"There is agreement among linguists who have considered the situation that over half of the world's languages are moribund, i.e. not effectively being passed on to the next generation. We and our children, then, are living at the point in human history where, within perhaps two generations, most languages in the world will die out.

This mass extinction of languages may not appear immediately life-threatening. Some will feel that a reduction in numbers of languages will ease communication, and perhaps help build nations, even global solidarity. But it has been well pointed out that the success of humanity in colonizing the planet has been due to our ability to develop cultures suited for survival in a variety of environments. These cultures have everywhere been transmitted by languages, in oral traditions and latterly in written literatures. So when language transmission itself breaks down, especially before the advent of literacy in a culture, there is always a large loss of inherited knowledge.

Valued or not, that knowledge is lost, and humanity is the poorer. Along with it may go a large part of the pride and self-identity of the community of former speakers.

And there is another kind of loss, of a different type of knowledge. As each language dies, science, in linguistics, anthropology, prehistory and psychology, loses one more precious source of data, one more of the diverse and unique ways that the human mind can express itself through a language's structure and vocabulary."

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