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Finding value in minority languages

11 September 20141 comment
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Copyright: Unverschleierte Toleranz

English speaking societies need to do more to value the languages of migrants, according to one of the world’s leading educators.

Cambridge University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz said making better use of the languages of minority groups could have social,
economic and educational benefits.

“I think we need greater recognition of the value of bilingualism among first- and second-generation immigrant children. The decline we are seeing in learning other languages in Britain and across the English-speaking world could limit the educational and career chances of poorer children”, Professor Borysiewicz said.

He said that German teaching in particular was disappearing from schools in Britain, and blamed the decline in language learning on the global dominance of English, combined with “laziness” over picking up languages.

Professor Borysiewicz is the son of Polish refugees who settled in Britain after WWII. His comments come as new research suggests economic prosperity is the worst enemy of minority languages.

The research, published in the Royal Society Journal, identified parts of Australia, Europe and North America as “hotspots” for language extinction risk.

Based on the same criteria used to determine the risk of extinction faced by animal and plant species, the researchers concluded that about a quarter of the world’s known 6,909 languages were threatened.

“Languages are now rapidly being lost at a rate of extinction exceeding the well-known catastrophic loss of biodiversity,” the US-European research team said.

“Small-population languages remaining in economically developed regions are seriously threatened by continued speaker declines.”

In Alaska, for example, there were only 24 active speakers by 2009 of the Athabaskan people’s indigenous language, which children were no longer learning.

And the Wichita language of the Plains Indians, now based in Oklahoma, had only one fluent speaker by 2008.

In Australia, aboriginal languages like the recently-extinct Margu and almost extinct Rembarunga are “increasingly disappearing”, the team wrote.

“Economically developed regions, such as North America and Australia, have already experienced many language extinctions,” they said.

“Nevertheless, small-range and small-population languages still persist in hotspots within these regions. Those languages need immediate attention because of their high extinction risk.”

Also at risk were developing parts of the world undergoing rapid economic growth, such as much of the tropics and the Himalayan region, said the team – citing Brazil and Nepal.

The researchers had gathered data on the number of speakers of a language, their geographical range, and rates of growth or decline.

According to the 2011 Australian census, 76.8 per cent of people spoke only English at home.

Other languages spoken at home included Mandarin 1.6 per cent, Italian 1.4 per cent, Arabic 1.3 per cent, Cantonese 1.2% and Greek 1.2%. A considerable proportion of first- and second-generation migrants are bilingual.

It is believed that there were almost 400 Australian Aboriginal languages at the time of first European contact. Only about 70 of these languages have survived and all but 30 of these are now endangered. An indigenous language remains the main language for about 50,000 people.