The Death of Language

by Bun Kin

Today, half of the six thousand or so languages are spoken by fewer than ten thousand people. On the other hand, only a small number are spoken by hundreds of millions of people. Researchers believe that no language can survive unless one hundred thousand people speak it.

However, actually the death of languages is not a new thing. Since languages diversified, at least thirteen thousand of them were born and disappeared without leaving any sign. What is new is the speed at which they are dying out. For example, over the last three hundred years, Europe has lost about twelve languages, Australia has only twenty left of 215 languages, and Brazil has lost 500, three-fourths of total languages. This was brought by colonial conquests, whose territorial unity was linked to their linguistic homogeneity.

The effects of the death of languages are serious for several reasons. First, as each languages dies, a part of human history comes to an end. Because we can’t completely understand the origins of human language or solve the mystery of the first language.

Second, the destruction of multilingualism will lead to the loss of multiculturalism. Because a language is not only the main instrument of human communication, it also expresses the world view of those who speak it, their imagination and their ways of using knowledge. And last, the threat to multilingualism is similar to the threat to biodiversity, because many of the worlds endangered plant and animal species today are known only to certain peoples whose languages are dying out. As those people die, they take with them all the traditional knowledge about the environment.

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit made a specific plan to protect biodiversity. Therefore the need to protect languages began to be appreciated in the middle of the twentieth century, when language rights were included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, a number of methods have been adopted and projects have been launched to safeguard what is now thought to be a heritage of humanity. These plans and initiatives may not prevent languages from dying out, but at least they will slow down the process and encourage multilingualism.

The language is not just the main instrument of human communication, it is also the world view, the imagination and the ways of using knowledge of human. We can’t prevent the death of languages, however it belongs to one of very meaningful and important thing for human to heighten conscience about language.

Language is the Key to Work

Anonymous student post

According to Rumbaut (2008), there at least 191 million people who are immigrants all around the world. But many of these immigrants work with low paid work, such as blue collar work, even though they may have a university degree. This blog post will mainly focus on Scandinavian immigrants who have higher education and have to accept a low paid work to earn money. What’s the reason behind this?

First I want to introduce a story about a taxi driver who immigrated to Scandinavia. This taxi driver is from Iran with an education in medicine, he was a general practitioner back in Iran but in this new country, he couldn’t get any job as a general practitioner. He applied to many hospitals, but no one replied. In the end he took a job as a taxi driver so he could support his family.

I don’t know if this is a true story or not, I just remember that I read this story in a newspaper one morning ages ago. The main point in this story is that if you can’t speak the language properly you will not be able to get a job that fits your education. This is also very true with second generation of immigrants. 1/5 of second-generation immigrants that attend a university don’t always find a job fit for their education, and are instead forced to take low-paid work. Why can’t the immigrants get higher-paid work? The answer, I think, lies in the language difference. If the immigrants can’t speak or write properly they have it harder to find a job that fits their education.

Many second-generation immigrants attending the university have a hard time using the language fluently (academic writing and speaking), because many of these people lack the advanced vocabulary of the language. Why? I think this is mainly because these immigrants don’t have the chance to use “advanced” words in their daily life, for example, they can perform a conversation with friends that have similar vocabulary, but rarely do they get the chance to use “advanced” words in a “normal” conversation. If they use an “advanced” word in a conversation with friends or family, they may not understand the word and ask for an explanation or a substitute for the word.

But is the language everything? For the taxi driver it meant the difference between low-paid and high-paid work. He couldn’t speak the language fluently and got low-paid work. This is one of the bad sides; the society misses a lot of valuable resources because the immigrants can’t speak the language fluently, and will probably never do either. From this, another question rises, how can the society take advantage of these highly skilled workers even though they don’t speak the language fluently?

Are foreign languages a threat to the host country culture and language?

by Glenn Soenvisen

In the mid-90’s a new term, “Kebab-Norwegian,” was coined in Norway; it meant the dialect of the Norwegian language which contained relatively many loanwords from non-western immigrants. This term was soon picked up and used vigorously by the media, where it sometimes was stated as a reason for the deterioration of the “real” Norwegian language. In some extreme cases it was even stated that the verb was put in the wrong place when speaking “Kebab-Norwegian” and female and neuter gender nouns became male. Some even said that it brought unwanted culture into the country, stating that degrading non-western words for “females” were used to refer to females in general. In short, some people perceived “Kebab-Norwegian” as a threat to the “real” Norwegian culture and language. Therefore, we needed assimilation of the users in order to retain our national identity and values.

What I find funny about this, though, is how little basis there are for these utterances. For one thing, “Kebab-Norwegian” is only used in the eastern parts of the Norwegian capital Oslo by immigrant youth and their possible native Norwegian friends; it’s an ethnolect rather than a dialect, and there has been no proof of it spreading to other parts of the country, as is only logical since ethnolects are associated with specific ethnic or cultural subgroups. You could say it is an in-group way of speaking.

And that brings me to another thing worth pointing out: the ethnolect in question is spoken, not written. Sure, users may write it when chatting online through facebook and the like, but those services are closed networks and not available to everyone. Furthermore, even Norwegians may write in their own dialects in such contexts, but it doesn’t seem to affect their ability to write correctly written Norwegian when needed.

Moreover, considering that “Kebab-Norwegian” is almost exclusively used by youths, the users of it are most likely bilingual, or even trilingual, having learned “real” Norwegian from a very young age, as well as English which are being taught from early elementary school level. Keeping this in mind we can take a look at what Alejandro Portes writes in his feature article “English-only triumphs, but the costs are high:” bilinguals outperform their monolingual counterparts in almost all cognitive tests.

In short, immigrants speaking “Kebab-Norwegian” should have no more difficulty in using suitable language to suitable situations on the same level as native Norwegians do. That learning two or more languages at the same time makes for underdeveloped ability in both/all is a thought for the 1930’s.

Besides, even Norwegians themselves mess with the genders of the nouns. I myself use all three genders (male, female, neuter), but in some parts of Norway the female one doesn’t exist. There’s also often the case that nouns can be used as both male and female. What’s more, the new rages in the language debate is that native Norwegian children are more and more using the sound sh [ ʃ ] where kj [ ç ] should be used and, to a lesser degree, using the word hvem (who) where hvilken (which) should be used.

Lastly, it’s not like degrading words for females in general is exclusive to non-western languages. I dare say that bitch is, unfortunately, used extensively in informal spoken English and Norwegian both.

Of course, foreign languages may have influence on the national language and culture, but only in minor ways, such as adding words which we don’t have any words for in our own language, replacing interjections, or introducing new foods. However, this cannot be considered a threat at all. Rather than threatening, the influences enrich and enhance, like an add-on to your browser. If “Kebab-Norwegian” really was a threat, one can wonder why the English influence, which is much bigger, hasn’t made us all speak “Norwish” yet. There is no need for complete assimilation.

Filmmaker Dave Boyle talks with Ritsumeikan students

by Robert Moorehead

Dave Boyle’s films (Big Dreams Little Tokyo, White on Rice, Surrogate Valentine, Daylight Savings) blend English and Japanese languages, and American and Japanese cultures. In this video, he discusses “Big Dreams Little Tokyo” with a class of International Relations students at Ritsumeikan University. Boyle talks about the roles of language, culture, race, and stereotypes in the film, and the choices he made as an actor and a director.

Language education against emigrants in Japan

by Minori Takada

Today, in the world (especially in multicultural countries), the education of the language for the emigrant becomes the problem. Therefore, I report the actual situation of the Japanese education for emigrants in Japan, and in the end I would like to make a suggestion “what we need” for its improvement.

As you know, Japan shows severe posture for immigration intake, and the ratio of foreigner residing in Japan is remarkably lower than other countries. According to OECD, the ratio of the foreigner among the total population in Japan was 1.7% in 2009.

Many of them came to Japan as “emigrants” to get job. And some of them get married after having a job in Japan and get a child, so the linguistic education for the child of the emigrant often becomes the problem in Japan.

To say it plainly, the Japanese education for the children of emigrants is not enough. We can understand this situation from looking at this chart. (Economic and Social Research Institute Cabinet Office Tokyo, Japan. 2012)

Citizenship School attendance (%) Students who go on to high school (%)
Korea 99.8% 93.0%
China 99.4% 85.7%
Philippine 98.1% 59.7%
Brazil 98.1% 42.2%
U.S. 94.3% 87.7%
U.K. 99.5% 98.1%

This is the percentage of students who go on to a higher stage of education.

There are six nationalities’ data, Korea, China, Philippine, Brazil, U.S. and U.K. Here is the average percentage of schools that are compulsory education, and all of them show high numbers. However, percentages of students who go on to a high school greatly falls. This is why that they cannot keep up with classes, because some of children cannot understand Japanese well.

Why does such a result appear? I checked what kind of linguistic education for emigrants is done in Japan.

According to the Agency for Cultural Affairs research, the number of the facilities that teach Japanese to immigrants was 1,832 in 2011. And in addition, more than 70% are accounted by public facilities. And there are four main supports that are done by the Japanese government.

  • Financial support for the administration of the Japanese classroom.
  • Working-out of the research expense about the Japanese education.
  • Maintenance of the teaching materials about the Japanese education.
  • Holding of the Japanese education meeting for the study.

From this, we can understand that “support” by the Japanese government is only basically financial or superficial things.

Then, what kinds of policies do countries (where a lot of emigrants succeed in their linguistic education) perform?

I nominated Germany for an example, because it is said that Germany resembles Japan.

The biggest difference is that there is an enforcement of the native language education at government level. This is called as “intensive teaching methods”, and children can use only German all the time when they are at school. And in addition, German government holds special measures against children who do not have enough skills to speak and write.

“The education for the emigrant” is established in a school law clearly in Germany, and it may be said that such an education is accomplished well.

In conclusion, based on these things, I point out a refinement of the linguistic education for the emigrant in Japan.

I think the government should be concerned with support more directly. The government should perform not only the support that indirect and financial, but also a more concrete support.

And to plan an opportunity to learn Japanese for as a public thing, as the agency for cultural affairs says, it is necessary to calculate numbers from the results of conventional various educational fronts and accumulation of future data, and research about the language use situation of the foreigner and the Japanese ability.


移民統合における言語教育の役割 ―ドイツの事例を中心に― (金箱秀俊 pp.50-76. 2010. 国立国会図書館調査)

日本における外国人の定住化についての 社会階層論による分析 ‐職業達成と世代間移動に焦点をあてて‐ (是川夕 2012. ESRI Discussion Paper Series No.283)

文化庁 海外における移民に対する言語教育

文化庁 世界、日本、地域から見る日本語教育

The Atlas for Emigration:

Help Us Get into Paperback

Language and Citizenship in Japan

Click on the book cover for more details on the book, including an order form with a 20% discount.

by Robert Moorehead

(Update: Routledge is offering a 20 percent discount on the book, if you use the code ERJ69. Ordering details are available by clicking here to access and attached PDF file and order form.)

Last year, I published a chapter in the book Language and Citizenship in Japan. The fine folks at Routledge released the book in hardcover and Kindle formats, and now we’d like to see the book in paperback. Why? Because the hardcover book costs $116, and the Kindle edition $100. Only libraries will purchase the book at that price, and I’d like to see the book on more people’s shelves. We do this work not for book royalties, but to spread and share ideas.

Routledge generally sells paperbacks at a fraction of the the cost of hardcovers, and a paperback edition would likely bring the price of the Kindle edition down, also. The lower the price, the more likely people will buy the book and order it for classes—and the more our ideas will be part of the debates.

To get the magic paperback edition released, Routledge first needs to sell 200 copies of the hardcover. We can get there if more libraries purchase the book. So, if your library doesn’t already have it, then please encourage them to order it. This link gives you the information your library will need to order the book from Routledge:

Here’s a blurb about the book:

The relationship between language and citizenship in Japan has traditionally been regarded as a fixed tripartite: ‘Japanese citizenship’ means ‘Japanese ethnicity,’ which in turn means ‘Japanese as one’s first language.’ Historically, most non-Japanese who have chosen to take out citizenship have been members of the ‘oldcomer’ Chinese and Korean communities, born and raised in Japan. But this is changing: the last three decades have seen an influx of ‘newcomer’ economic migrants from a wide range of countries, many of whom choose to stay. The likelihood that they will apply for citizenship, to access the benefits it confers, means that citizenship and ethnicity can no longer be assumed to be synonyms in Japan.

This is an important change for national discourse on cohesive communities. This book’s chapters discuss discourses, educational practices, and local linguistic practices which call into question the accepted view of the language-citizenship nexus in lived contexts of both existing Japanese citizens and potential future citizens. Through an examination of key themes relating both to newcomers and to an older group of citizens whose language practices have been shaped by historical forces, these essays highlight the fluid relationship of language and citizenship in the Japanese context.

It’s an excellent book, with engaging chapters written by leading scholars that are appropriate for general and academic audiences. If I weren’t already in the book, I’d definitely buy it—in paperback. And if my library didn’t have it, I’d push them to order it.

I’ll avoid for now any existential whinging about the fact that we can’t even sell 200 copies of a fine book. It’s depressing, and I’d rather not think about it. But this is a reflection of the tight market for academic books, where good books don’t get ordered because of shrinking budgets. Less expensive editions of books don’t get published because the more expensive editions didn’t sell, thereby discouraging people even more. It’s a downward spiral. But we can try to stop this downward trend by promoting each others’ books, and by gently nudging our librarians toward the texts that we want to read.