We are losing one of the world’s 7,000+ languages every two weeks. This is the result of world-shrinking technology, wars, enslavements and colonizations. Hence, the development of the language hegemonies now evident to all. For example, English has become the language of international business worldwide.
My immigrant neighbors speak an eastern European language fluently. At one point, their son understood much of their native tongue conversations, but has refused to speak it since the first day of Kindergarten and now he has all but lost it. As he was growing up, I kept telling him that he was losing a treasure by choosing not to speak his ancestral language…to no avail.
That’s the reality of language loss. But it doesn’t have to be.
Naturally, political forces often create an environment that is hostile to those speaking minority languages and favors those who speak the major tongues. Social or economic pressures that are unstated and perhaps even unintended can inexorably diminish the value of minority languages, so their speakers adopt the dominant language out of self-defense.
However, there are unique skills, values, ideas, feelings and emotions that are commonly shared through other languages. Even fluent bilinguals, attempting to communicate something from their family’s rich heritage, may recognize that there is no way to explain something of significance or importance in English. The English language often lacks the words to describe things that other languages communicate. This reality underscores that to lose a language from the world is to lose its rich attendant culture as well.
Now, English is an extremely rich language, known for easy adoption of words, phrases and meaning from other languages. So, what might we do when immigrant children enter our classrooms speaking little or no English? What might we communicate to their families about our intentions to honor their language and the cultural, religious and artistic differences between their home and the school?
Sadly, the family may be over-eager for their little one to learn English, thus expend no effort to celebrate and perpetuate their family’s heritage. Yet, research on bilingual education is that children can readily learn two languages as easily as one. That is a bonus and an invitation to celebrate all languages! Being bilingual provides a richer linguistic background in all school subjects. Thus, it is in the interest of the school and the community it serves to encourage and celebrate every language in their population. Of course, that would mean creating space for and encouraging bilingual/bicultural children to lead in expanding their classmates’ education by sharing their unique language and culture, broadening young perspectives.
Sure, some subtle things really can’t be translated on the spot, but over time, through dramatic presentation, art, music and a lot of English conversation, together students can figure out how to understand their classmates’ important meanings. This will expand everyone’s English as well as the cohesion of the class via such shared experiences.
I vote for no language loss and all educational win. Let’s celebrate!