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Language Footprints and Individualism

Navel-gazing aside: I do most of my blog reading these days at work, but I've made a commitment to never post to this blog from work. So I have a tendency to have post ideas floating around for a while before I get around to actually posting them (if I even do at all -- in a large part, blogging is for me a way of getting ideas to settle down in my head by fixing them to a page, but if I wait long enough they settle on their own and writing them out becomes just a chore), by which time the conversation I'm responding to has often moved on.

Lauredhel mentions the idea of a "language footprint." Patterned after the common idea of an ecological footprint, your language footprint is the extent to which your activities negatively impact the survival of other languages.

Raising awareness of the problem of language extinction, in which a few global languages drive out other languages spoken by smaller and less powerful groups*. But I think the "footprint" metaphor tends to frame the problem in too individualistic a way. The description on the language footprint site lends itself easily to being thought of as a matter of individual choices of language, a la a rude tourist asking the waitstaff for "water" rather than "agua" or "yaku." And indeed, the comment section of the above-linked Hoyden About Town thread is full of people proudly professing that they study a phrasebook before travelling internationally.

The issue here is not that learning the local language before traveling is unimportant**. It's that it addresses only a small aspect of the problem of language extinction. Language extinction is fundamentally a structural problem. English is not encroaching on other languages because Anglophones are ruder than speakers of Pitjantjatjara or Saami. English is encroaching on other languages because our world is becoming more and more globalized and the global political-economic system is dominated by English-speaking countries.

Ecological footprint calculations can break down this sort of structural responsibility and apportion a share of the blame to individuals to a limited degree, because it's possible to distinguish differential environmental impacts of different lifestyle and consumer habits -- driving a Prius vs an SUV, being a vegan vs a meat-and-potatoes person, etc. (I forget where I found this first, but it's interesting to note in connection with the structural factors in environmental impacts that even Buddhist monks in the USA have twice the world average ecological footprint.) But with respect to language dominance, the negative structural effects on smaller languages are a result of the system as a whole (i.e. the level of global integration and dominance of Anglophone countries), making it next to impossible to talk about more or less "language-friendly" practices beyond the small potatoes of learning the languages of your tourist destinations. Certainly one could engage in activism aimed at changing these structures (either at a global level or in more locally-focused projects), but factoring that in as an element of your individual language footprint seems to warp the metaphor beyond utility.

*This can be a complexly multi-scalar process. If I recall my freshman-year class on Peru correctly, English is encroaching on Spanish at the global level, while within Latin America Spanish is encroaching on indigenous languages such as Quechua, and at the same time Quechua is actually encroaching on less-popular indigenous Andean languages as the region's Indians consolidate a new form of native identity in the face of globalization.

**Although it is interesting to me the different motivations involved. I've only traveled once to a non-English-speaking area, and while I did study my German phrasebook en route to Bonn, it was less out of a desire to be conscientious about my impact on German speakers or a desire to get a real experience of local culture, than it was because I was afraid I might get hurt and not be able to tell people "Rufen Sie die Krankenvagen!"


Blogger ogre said...


English on the US/Mexican border (and Spanish there, too) is counter-encroaching. More and more of the vocabulary of each language seems to be getting adopted into the other.

The whole thing is a fascinating issue.

12:36 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

The survival of the languages tourists are likely to come into contact with isn't an issue. Spanish has 400 million speakers, a couple of Nobel Prize winners, and official status in some major economies; it's not going anywhere. More importantly, Khmer is not going anywhere, either. The languages threatened with extinction are typically spoken by a small group that's marginalized within its own country, and that is undergoing some pressure to assimilate.

The advice that Lauredhel gives won't work for these languages. People in the third world know that learning English is good for them; that's how they get out of poverty. Siem Reap is full of people whose incomes quadrupled after they learned English (or French, or Italian, or Spanish) well enough to communicate with tourists. None of these people knows less Khmer as a result. On the contrary: by injecting more money into the Khmer-speaking economy, this increases demand for Khmer translations of books, Khmer textbooks, and Khmer education; it also makes it likelier a talented Cambodian will write books that will then enrich the Khmer language.

The obvious contrast is with most Native American languages (or Cornish for that matter). These tend to be spoken by a very small number of people - often measured in the thousands, not millions. They also have relative freedom of movement, so their way of getting out of poverty involves assimilating into mainstream society. That induces depopulation, which can instantly kill languages with only a few hundred speakers. It can also induce simplication, where the language is replaced by another in many settings, so that its grammatical complexity and vocabulary size shrink.

12:54 AM  
Blogger Stentor said...

Alon: Good points. I might nuance your Khmer example by observing that an exclusive focus on language *extinction* may lead us to ignore situations in which a language survives quite well, but in a subordinated position.

1:39 AM  

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