Wednesday Word of the Week: language

language (LAYNG-gwihj) noun. set of sounds, gestures, or symbols that allows people to communicate (National Geographic Education)

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As a “typical American”, I am uni-lingual.  Sometimes, I can use my Latin to feebly follow
very slow, simple conversations in the romance languages, but I say that
largely to make myself feel better. 
Truthfully, I can only speak in one tongue (if I am expected to be
understood).  Outside of the United
States, this is unusual.  Most of the
world speaks two or more languages; in fact, every European I’ve met has been
fluent in at least three. 


languagescultpture

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A sculpture sits in front of the University of Houston
library and lights up the building with different words from poems, novels and
prose from many languages. Photo courtesy of Melanie
Huff, MyShot, 4/10/2012.

Does this mean that Americans are dumb?  Not necessarily; our language pattern (or
lack thereof) is a result of our history. 
The Americas were settled by a handful of European colonial giants;
the resulting linguistic quilt is much simpler and much more bland than on
continents where languages have been allowed to flourish within smaller nation-states.  Whereas many of the 46 countries within the
singular continent of Europe have independent languages, the entire swath of
land from Canada and Alaska down to Patagonia is dominated by speakers of
English, French, or Spanish, with a few pockets of indigenous languages hanging
on by a thread.  

Before the colonization of the Americas, this was not the
case.  According to Indiana University’s John
Rehling
, the present territory of the United States, alone, hosted speakers
of about 250 different languages.  Colonial conquests interrupted the
development of these languages and the nations to which they belonged,
gradually causing cultural endangerment or extinction.  Today, says David
Braun
of National Geographic, there are 150-170 native languages that still
survive in North America; however, many of these have fewer than a hundred
speakers.

Until recently, this topic was not really on my radar.  It was brought to my attention upon learning
that a friend, who has partial Mohawk ancestry, is planning to use the Mohawk Rosetta Stone
program
to add to what his grandmother taught him of the language and keep
the culture alive.  Before then, it just
wasn’t something I thought about.  I have
European heritage and have grown up in a country that has not required me to
communicate in any language other than English. 
If my competence of the romance languages is sparse, let’s not even
begin to discuss my familiarity with native languages.  I have no direct connection to them.  But then, to further quote Braun, “The loss
of any language is a loss for us all. We lose part of the human genius, and
with the disappearance of a language also goes a lot of spiritual concepts,
art, and so on.”  To let languages go
extinct is to willingly disregard all that grew out of them, from embedded
spirituality to cultural traditions to deep ecological knowledge.  


powwowdancer

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A Native American girl dances for contest in Tiny Tots
category at Bear Mountain Pow Wow, NY. 
Photo courtesy of Janwalai Kusuwan, MyShot, 8/16/2012
.

Culture is shaped by language.  Knowledge is shaped by culture.  And in that sense, doesn’t it seem wiser to preserve
diversity than to thwart it?  To maintain
as much knowledge as possible rather than throw away any part of “the human
genius”?  Already, the United States is
the poster child for globalization, and in an increasingly globalized, or dare
I say, “Americanized” world, unity and cohesion tend to be valued over said
diversity.  As we move forward and become
increasingly connected with one another, we can go in one of two directions: we
can become a global
“melting pot” or a global “salad bowl”
. 
Realizing how much has been lost with some of the native languages of the
Americas, I have to wonder how much more would disappear if we were to continue on the melting pot route.

– Lindsey Luria for National Geographic Education

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