International Mother Language Day on the 21st of February calls upon recognising the importance of language diversity and its promotion, protection and preservation. In celebration of this day, we talked to someone who spends a lot of time doing exactly that:
Sandy Ritchie is a PhD student at SOAS, University of London and Co-Founder of Language Landscape (languagelandscape.org), a not-for-profit organisation which aims to raise awareness of language diversity. His research focuses on Chimane, a poorly described endangered language spoken in Amazonian Bolivia. Alongside his research into Chimane grammar, he has also collaborated with the community on the development of a ‘talking dictionary’ programme. Back home in London, he leads development of the Language Landscape website and has also been involved in outreach work in schools and community centres.
1. How many languages do you speak?
It depends on your definition! I was brought up in a monolingual English-speaking household so I only really speak English with native competence. I began studying languages in high school and now speak Italian, Spanish, French and Mandarin with varying degrees of fluency. I’m also working on improving my Chimane, though it is hard to learn a language with no textbooks!
2. Why is it important to safeguard endangered and minority languages?
There are two main reasons. The first is that languages are the vehicles of human cultures. Over hundreds or even thousands of years, people have spoken into their language the stories, myths and legends which define their community’s beliefs and their collective history and identity. Of course it possible to tell these stories in other languages, but many of the subtleties will be lost in translation. If a language dies, all this unique cultural knowledge and expression dies with it. As Amadou Hampâté Bâ said: “when an old man dies, it’s a library burning.”
The second reason is more of a scientific one. All languages have unique systems of grammar and vocabularies with thousands of words which enable their speakers to express complex thoughts and ideas. Driving linguistic research is the question “what is a possible human language?”. When we lose languages, we lose important evidence which may help us to give a better answer to this question.
(Sandy with the Caity Durvano family from Puerto Mendez village near San Borja / Bolivia)
3. Which language you’re working with do you find most fascinating?
It’s got to be Chimane! It’s an isolate language, which means it’s not related to any other language. This means that it has some unusual features not found in other South American languages. For example, every noun in Chimane has masculine or feminine gender, just like in French and the other Romance languages. Gender is quite a common feature of European languages, but in South America it’s almost unheard of!
4. How can we all help to value other people’s mother languages on a day to day basis?
It would be a big undertaking to learn all the languages your colleagues or classmates speak, but there are little things you can do to show that you’re interested. For example, it’s not hard to learn ‘incidental’ phrases in other languages that people use in daily life, things like ‘hi’, ‘how are you?’, ‘see you later’ and so on. Especially if they speak a less well-known language, people really appreciate it if you have a go, even if you can’t say much.
5. What role can technology like smartphones and tablets play in helping to safeguard language diversity?
Developing apps which can help speakers of minority and endangered languages to maintain their languages is a key challenge for the future. Smartphones especially are becoming ubiquitous all around the world, so we need to harness the technology in everyone’s pocket for the maintenance and development of all languages large and small. Communities, linguists and developers are already working together to create these apps, but we need a lot more funding to make a significant difference.