The existence of mankind is essentially dependant on the written and spoken word. Our ability to interact and communicate with each other relies wholly on the powerful medium of language.
It is a vital key for the success of global commerce and economics, cultural and academic development, international trade and relations, laws and legal interactions, human relationships and the overall quality of life. But the power of language goes beyond spoken or written words.Unless we are able to really understand each other and learn more about the world, which consists of literally thousands of different cultures, it will not be possible to progress toward a life of contentment and peace. Linguists and anthropologists will agree that the study of languages fosters an increased understanding of tradition.
Knowledge in turn will bring an appreciation of different cultures, deepen the perception of cultural values, and strengthen communication. We can begin to understand the values of language diversity through its impact on, and subsequent creation of culture.First we must ask, what is language? Language is merely a set of rules. Humans have created a pattern of symbols in order to interact with each other. Sociologist Herbert Blumer (1900-1987) invented a theory called 'symbolic interactionism', which is developed from the ideas initialised by George H. Mead.
It is the process of interaction in the formation of meanings. Blumer came up with three core principles to his theory. They are meaning, language and thought. These principles lead to conclusions about the creation of a person's self, and socialisation into a larger community (Griffin 1997).The first principle of meaning states that humans act toward people and things based upon the meanings they have associated to those people or things.
The second principle is language. Language is the medium by which humans negotiate meaning through symbols. And finally, thought modifies each individual's interpretation of symbols. Thought is a mental conversation or dialogue that requires role taking, or imagining different points of view (ibid). 'A major advantage of human language being a learned symbolic communication system is that it is infinitely flexible.
Meanings can be changed and new symbols created. This is evidenced by the fact that new words are invented daily and the meaning of old ones change' (O'Neil 1998). The origin of language is a fascinating topic in its own right but my intention is to illustrate the marriage between language and culture. Some native scholars and elders believe that our language is our culture. Verna Kirkness, states in her book on Aboriginal Languages (1998), "The key to identity and retention of culture is one's ancestral language". But there is grave concern about the deterioration of languages worldwide.
The death of languages ultimately means extinction of unique cultures. In his book 'Language Death' (2000), British Linguist David Crystal states that there are over 6,000 languages and many of them are on the brink of extinction at an alarming rate - 4% of languages accounting for 96% of people and 25% with fewer than 1000 speakers. Crystal estimates that by the end of this century half of the languages today will become extinct. "The prospect in a few hundred years of just one language per nation, and then just one language for the whole world is indeed real" (Cited in van Tiggelen 2005).
If we lose grasp of the value of language diversity, we virtually forfeit crucial links to the origin of human evolution. 'What is lost when a language is lost is another world' (Stephen Anderson, Yale University) Valuable ethnographic and cultural information disappears when a language is lost. Linguistic and anthropological studies have already revealed vastly different ways of representing and interpreting the world. Some Native American languages, for example, reveal a completely different understanding of the nature of time (Knight 2004).The fascinating aspect of language is the impact it has on our cognitive processes. In particular, cultural environments that people grow up in have surprising effects on how they interpret the world around them.
In his essay 'What is Language' (1998), modern anthropologist Dennis O'Neil provides an example of the Guugu Timithirr language speakers from northeast Australia. 'This group of Aborigines do not have words for left, right, front, or back. They use absolute rather than relative directions.When they refer to people or objects in their environment, they use compass directions. They would say, "I am standing southwest of my sister" rather than "I am standing to the left of my sister". If they spoke English they would use left, right, front and back just as we do.
However, if they do not learn English during early childhood, they will have difficulty in orienting themselves relatively, and absolute orientation makes much more sense to them'. People of various cultures make fine distinctions about certain phenomena that are important to them.For instance, residents of Bondi Beach may have dozens of surfing related words that would likely be unknown to Eskimos in Alaska, or people living in Britain for that matter. It can then be said that a certain identity is formed through the environment in which we are brought up.
We identify with our surroundings and environment which forms, what we call, 'culture'. Anthropologists have found that learning about how people categorize things in their environment provides important insights into the interests, concerns, and values of their culture.During my travels throughout South East Asia I was surprised to find many of the young generation of Cambodian's speak fluent English. The negative effects of globalisation have infiltrated underdeveloped nations through exploitation of its people, and drastically changing the course of their own culture.
The absolute necessity to speak English weighs heavily on their means of survival, as the prospects of work favours those who can communicate and meet the demands of the 'Western World'. In most parts of the world, English has progressively become the universal language.In 1840 the Maori chiefs of New Zealand signed a treaty by duplicating his 'Moko'- a facial tattoo that is distinctive to all Maori chiefs as a mark of identification. This document was written by the British and translated into the Maori language. The officialty of this so-called treaty is arbitrary because the translations between English and Maori are inaccurate. Just as Hebrew cannot be fully interpreted into English, as any attempt would be grossly inadequate and completely lack in the richness of its true meaning.
The treaty was a clever ploy to justify making New Zealand a British colony.In spite of this, Europeans viewed Maori culture as primitive and uncivilised, so the Maori people were banned from speaking in their native tongue for reasons of 'assimilation'. Consequently, domination of the British culture prevailed and English became the primary language of the Maori people. However, in the 1960's the Maori people of New Zealand began a revolution by taking their children out of the government educational system and formed a language and culture revitalization movement.
Children from the age of six weeks to five years old, Elders, parents and art materials, were placed in the Te Kohunga Rea, or 'language nest'.The only language allowed in the Te Kohunga Rea was strictly Maori and it is the only preschool and early childhood education. Over the years this movement has grown and now includes education at all levels in which only Maori is spoken or read (Kenny 2004). The future for the preservation of Maori culture and language is delightfully positive but unfortunately there are an incredible number of minority languages in the world today facing extinction. With only 200 of over 6,000 languages being spoken by more than 1 million people, the trend is toward less diversity.
When the majority of languages fall away before the global influence of the most dominant languages, ideas and perspectives are lost with them. Jarod Diamond (cited in Deakin Uni. Readings 2007) purports, 'the relationships of the languages that survive today serve to trace the history of human development and migrations'. Language is one of the most brilliant creations of man, and diverse cultures are an integral quality of our being. If we are to progress in our knowledge of human evolution we must realise the importance of our native tongue and embrace all cultures.