I personally believe in the importance of diversity in this world, and this includes linguistic diversity. Diversity, however, should be accompanied by equality, at least as much as is reasonably possible. This hardly ever happens – some languages are prestigious and important, some others are not, and obviously, this has nothing to do with some intrinsic superiority. This is all to do with history, politics and economics, as we all know. English has become the lingua franca of the world, whereas, say, Lombard, the regional language spoken in the region where I come from in Italy, or Mah Meri, the language spoken by a small group of aboriginal people (Orang Asli) in Malaysia, are considered just ‘minor’ languages, or even mere ‘dialects’ by both institutions and, by reflection, the people living in these two countries. Often, sadly, they are considered as such even by many of their remaining speakers who, through a hegemonic process, are convinced that to be able to advance in society, ‘small’ languages are not useful and can be discarded.

It is a fact that ‘fighting’ against English is a hopeless battle, and this makes any attempt at revitalization and language planning for endangered languages very difficult. Even though it is a language I like and respect, English shouldn’t really be the international language – too many people in the world will never be able to really master it. A language fit to be really international should be very simple and neutral, like Esperanto, for example. Esperanto is the auxiliary international language invented by L. L. Zamenhof in 1887. Even though it is not completely neutral as its vocabulary is based on European languages, it is very simple and completely regular, and, most importantly, it is nobody’s first language and does not have a culture behind it; and if it has one, it is an international and pacifist culture. If this were adopted as an international language, even Americans and Britons would have to learn it! I deeply admire the people that have tried to spread and popularize this language until today, but not being a language that can promise economic success, I’m afraid it will never achieve its original purpose of becoming the lingua franca of the world. This means we are stuck with English, and we, the speakers of other languages, must try our best to learn it as well as we can, even though we can hardly aspire to achieve our mother tongue’s proficiency.

Going back to minority languages, as I wrote above, in spite of the difficulties, revitalizing them is a noble and important endeavour always worth attempting for the following reasons (and there may be more):

1) to give their speakers a self-confidence and self-respect that the official policy of the state has undermined; 

2) to create an interest in local traditions and history, with all this entails; 

3) to create jobs in the areas related to language planning (translators, teachers, civil servants, etc.); 

4) to stimulate a literary and musical revival in the minority language;

5) to enhance a type of cultural tourism whose main attractions are the linguistic and cultural characteristics of the area, which can also create new jobs.[1]

With respect to the first three points, Nancy Dorian wrote[2]:

“The first [of these reasons] is that one of the commonest reasons for failure – negative attitudes internalized by the speakers or potential speakers themselves – is in itself a serious reason for attempting to promote the language. […] In such a climate the gesture of school and community support can act as a corrective in a psychological sense, even when the practical consequences of promotion are unlikely to be significant. Speakers, or at any event their children and their children’s children, might possibly derive some compensation for the pain of stigma and ridicule, or at the least some basis for mitigating negative family attitudes, by witnessing a reversal of official attitude and a possible concomitant lessening of general hostility to the minority culture (even if the language were lost) in the community at large.”

“A second and related benefit from promotion efforts is in the fact that they nearly always carry with them if only because of the need for appropriate instruction materials, some emphasis on traditional lifeways and some transmission of ethnic history. Quite typically the threatened language community is also dispossessed of its heritage […]. The self-awareness and self-confidence which can be regained through the recovery of such information have value in themselves […].”

“A third potential benefit to be derived from promotion efforts […] is economic.”

At this point, however, I would like to clarify things taking, if I may, an ‘Indian’ approach to this article, at least for what I know and highly appreciate about this wonderful country, full of problems but also of history, philosophy, and many other things. First of all, as the Bhagavad Gita clearly explains (and Buddhism as well) we should never attach to the results of our action, even when we expect the result to be the ‘normalization’ of a language. We have to try and revitalize endangered languages because we believe in the effort and enjoy it, for the sake of justice and the wellbeing of the marginalized people who speak or used to speak them, for the sake of this world’s diversity and culture, whatever the final result may be. And thinking of Buddhism (or Taoism), I believe we should always strive to follow the middle way, with no extremisms, changing and improving what we can change and accepting and adapting to what we cannot change, which in the case of language planning basically means accepting bilingualism or even diglossia, with English and the big official languages on one side, and ‘small’ local languages on the other. All this should be done with a peaceful spirit. One thing that we should absolutely avoid, I believe, is ill-will and conflict, or even ‘vengeance’. There are cases, in fact, when former minority language speakers, after managing to make their language official and dominant in a territory, started to marginalize and discriminate against the former official language, treating its speakers in the same way as they used to be treated. I am thinking of places like Estonia, for example, or Catalonia in Spain, where the local institutions have just reproduced the nationalist attitudes of their predecessors. If we believe in multilingualism, we have to accept even the ‘colonial’ languages (external or internal), even though our revitalization efforts will obviously focus on the minority languages we want to keep alive. In some other cases, factions within the community have fought fiercely against each other to defend a particular standard for the minority language, or even a particular writing system! This has often divided the community and weakened the revitalization efforts.

To conclude this brief article, if we want to keep minority or regional languages alive, the first two things we have to try and do is to raise their prestige and make them somehow useful for advancing in society. People want to improve their lot and tend to privilege languages that can lead to some kind of reward, whether economic or cultural. So we should try to use the minority language to create interesting and useful literature for everybody, good and entertaining music, to create some job opportunities, etc. i.e. anything that could stimulate people to retain their language and pass it down to the next generation. However, as I explained before, I believe we should do this with the ‘Indian’ spiritual attitude of tolerance, open-mindedness and non-violence that Mahatma Gandhi, for example, so well portrayed, and with a feeling of happiness and pride for having the opportunity of helping preserve small endangered languages and cultures, and through them, the wellbeing of this planet and the people living on it. I also believe that a focus on the ‘small’ and the local could get people to appreciate more not only the human environment around them but also the natural one with its myriads of living beings that are now threatened by the greed and power of the ‘big’: big industry and big languages. In short, happiness and wellbeing over power and money,

[1] Coluzzi, Paolo. 2007. Minority Language Planning and Micronationalism in Italy: An Analysis of the Situation of Friulian, Cimbrian and Western Lombard with Reference to Spanish Minority Languages. Oxford: Peter Lang, 145-146.

[2] Dorian, Nancy. 1987. The value of language-maintenance efforts which are unlikely to succeed. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 68, 63-64.

This article is authored by Prof. Paolo Coluzzi who is from Milan. He currently works as an associate professor at the University of Malaya teaching Italian and sociolinguistics. His research interests include minority and regional languages, language planning, nationalism, language vitality and the linguistic landscape.

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Jean Severy
Jean Severy
2 years ago

A good, well written paper on a hopefully-not lost cause.

Paolo Coluzzi
Paolo Coluzzi
Reply to  Jean Severy
2 years ago

Thank you Jean! 🙂

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