Endangered Languages Are Worth Saving

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这篇文章由来自德克萨斯州伍德兰兹的伍德兰兹学院公园高中的 17 岁的 Zoe Yu 撰写,是学习网络第九届年度学生社论大赛的前 11 名获奖者之一,我们收到了 16,664 份参赛作品。

Endangered Languages Are Worth Saving

Every summer evening at 8 p.m. sharp, my grandma and I plant ourselves in front of the TV. Our next hour is filled with on-screen bouts of amnesia, plotting mothers-in-law, and tearful declarations of love in the rain. But what may seem like ordinary soap opera scenes are far more than melodrama and theatrics: Dialogued entirely in Taiwanese Hokkien, they’re artifacts of a once-dying language.

Linguists expect 90 percent of languages to become obsolete in the next century — and this mass extinction is no accident. Under colonial rule, learning or speaking my grandma’s native Hokkien, along with dozens of indigenous languages, was illegal by law. Schools were forbidden to teach using local dialects; formal institutions shifted to operate by the dominant Mandarin; and homegrown languages, stigmatized as coarse and improper through decades of repression by hegemonic language policies and imperialism, became a marker of backwardness. Today, more than half of native Hokkien speakers no longer use the language at home.

Unfortunately, this tragic silencing isn’t a rare practice. In the 1950s, thousands of Native American children were forced to surrender their mother tongues in boarding schools designed to eradicate indigenous identities. Even now, languages are vanishing at the hands of economic and social power struggles in which smaller communities are pressured to adopt the dominant language that governs work, entertainment and daily life. In fact, California repealed a law requiring “English-only” instruction just four years ago.

But shouldn’t we feel relief that we don’t live in the madness of a Tower of Babel society? While lingua francas undoubtedly streamline global communication, language isn’t solely a tool for business negotiations or celebrity gossip. Steeped in history and heritage, it’s a pillar of culture that built ancient empires, immortalized sacred religious texts, and stockpiled centuries of natural and medicinal wisdom. Records of past civilizations, together with poetry, music and folklore, hinge on a language’s grammatical and syntactic quirks.

The impact of language also spills beyond the past to influence ways of thinking in the present. Have you ever wondered why “death” is feminine in some paintings but masculine in others? It turns out that the gendering of nouns in an artist’s native language plays a role in how he or she decides to bring abstract concepts to life. Beyond art, researchers have also found links between language and perceptions of time, color and emotion.

Documentation projects and protective laws are already on the front lines in the battle against language death — but they won’t have a fighting chance until we realize that pruning a language tree kills more than just words. And if we don’t? Then, our rich forests of linguistic diversity will be flattened into barren wastelands, unable to support the cultures and peoples that once thrived within.

Works Cited

Boroditsky, Lera. “How Does Language Shape the Way We Think?” Edge.org, 11 June 2009.

Casey, Nicholas. “Thousands Once Spoke His Language in the Amazon. Now, He’s the Only One.” The New York Times, 26 Dec. 2017.

Gantt, Amy. “Native Language Revitalization: Keeping the Languages Alive and Thriving.” Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

Sandel, Todd L. “Linguistic Capital in Taiwan: The KMT’s Mandarin Language Policy and Its Perceived Impact on Language Practices of Bilingual Mandarin and Tai-gi Speakers.” Language in Society, 22 Oct. 2003.

Segel, Edward, and Lera Boroditsky. “Grammar in Art.” Frontiers in Psychology, 13 Jan. 2011.

Tesch, Noah. “Why Do Languages Die?” Encyclopedia Britannica.