Firth McEachern - Diversity Shock, Part 16
- (16th of 18 by Firth.)
Why are languages worth preserving?
Languages contain a treasure trove of information. Ancient texts are written in myriad tongues, but if a language becomes truly lost, those texts can become inaccessible to historians, just as Etruscan writings are today or Egyptian hieroglyphics before their decipherment. How can the details of an ancient battle, a political union, a high-profile love affair, or a famine be known if their documentation is in a language we no longer understand? Language is the key to the doorway of history, giving indispensable access to primary sources.
Anthropologists need language, meanwhile, to study both past and present societies. The idiosyncracies of vocabulary and expressions; the differences in verbal and written communication; formal and informal usages; the ritualistic employment of language; the different registers of youth, elders, women, and men--- such language traits reveal wide-ranging characteristics about a society. Characteristics of marriage, the path to adulthood, social hierarchy, perceptions of life and death, relationships between various groups, attitudes on success, and the role of the environment in a society can all be illuminated by the language they use.
Linguists study language to better understand language itself. Why do we speak the way we do today? How do we arrange our words and our sentences? In how many ways can we change a root word to make a new meaning, using suffixes and prefixes? What is the size of our vocabulary? How many languages have influenced our own? Have we borrowed grammatical structures from other languages, or just vocabulary? Which languages of the Philippines are most closely related? Which are furthest apart? Have our languages remained relatively unchanged over the last few hundred years or are they changing rapidly? If so, how and why? What is the future fate of our languages? These are all some of the questions linguists ask, and can help us answer. That is, if our languages survive long enough to offer such an opportunity.
Ecologists often work with linguists to learn new things about the environment. People are products of the environment they grow up in, and develop extensive vocabularies for plants, animals, and natural phenomena within their habitat. While English is a rich language, it can't beat the richness of Tibetan in mountain terminology, or Bedouin Arabic in desert terminology, or Inuktitut for winter terminology. Since languages develop over hundreds of years, they are an accumulation of many generations of acquired knowledge. Observations such as the mating habits of animals, hunting or foraging strategies, sleep patterns, competition with other species, and physiological changes that plants undergo is all information that our ancestors became keenly aware of and incorporated into their vocabularies. By studying native languages in their environmental contexts, ecologists can therefore learn of biological complexities otherwise unknown to modern science. Indigenous knowledge of local ecology may even offer direct benefits to human health, such as antidotes for snake bites, herbal drinks to combat cancer, nuts and root crops that are less fatty, serums that may be used for anaesthesia, etc.
Finally, archaeologists and human evolutionary biologists study languages to unravel the migration patterns of people. It is largely through a study of the similarities and differences of different Pacific languages that researchers were able to determine when and how humans moved across Oceania. Most of the languages of Oceania descend from an ancestral language in Taiwan, whose speakers migrated south into the Philippines about 6000 years ago (Blust 1999). Over time, their language diversified as they spread to the Malay Archipelago, Madagascar, and across the entire Pacific ocean, including Fiji, New Zealand, Vanuatu, French Polynesia, Hawaii, Easter Island, and many other island groups. Being one of the first stops in these migrations, the native Philippine languages (which number between 120-171 and include Aklanon, Maranao, Asi, Itawit, Tausug, Tagalog, Rombolon, and any other "dialect" you can think of), are some of the oldest Austronesian languages: older than this country, older than the countries that colonized us, and older than the Bible. As the "grandfathers" of most Austronesian languages, don't you think we have a particular responsibility in preserving them?
From a scholar's perspectivewhether she be a linguist, anthropologist, historian, biologist, geographer, or political scientistthe death of any language is a disaster, as it removes yet one more data point, one more object of academic inquiry, one more piece in the puzzle to understand language evolution and society as a whole. There is still so much research to be done on Philippine languages --- any person involved in the field will asseverate that we have barely scratched the surface. There remains a tremendous amount of information locked up in them. If we let them die, that information will be much harder to uncover, if not impossible.
- haha okay. i thought something's amiss. no tagalog national language to be accomodated in the national context other than to the nation of the tagalogs. thats their national language. we have ours.
--- In DILA@yahoogroups.com, "dphilfinc" <bcyp@...> wrote:
> --- In DILA@yahoogroups.com, "bankaw" wrote:
> > what national language were you referring earlier? was it tagalog?
> Like most of us in DILA, Firth suffers no confusion about the nature of the Filipino national language. It is Tagalog disguised. I have no idea if Hilario Davide still has this confusion inasmuch as he was certainly fooled in 1986.
> The current occupant of Palacio Malacanan must think that we Visayans are absolute fools. He is bestowing the highest civilian honor to a comedian who laughingly insulted us "Dugay ka na sa Manila tonto pa gihapon" in 2004.
> Dolphy to receive award from Palace
> President Aquino will confer the Grand Collar (Maringal na Kuwintas) of the Order of the Golden Heart on comedian Rodolfo Quizon, popularly known as Dolphy, in recognition of his achievements in show business and philanthropy.
> Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said that while Quizon would not be given the National Artist Award as some sectors were suggesting, he would be accorded the highest rank for private citizens.
> "The last one to receive this was Helen Keller on May 20, 1955. So it's very interesting that the predecessor of Manong Dolphy on this award was Keller," Valte said over radio station dzRB.
> The National Artist Award is conferred on a Filipino recognized for his significant contributions to the development of Philippine arts.
> Quizon actively campaigned for Sen. Manuel Villar Jr., Mr. Aquino's closest rival in the May 2010 elections.
> The award will be conferred on Quizon on Monday in simple rites at the Rizal Ceremonial Hall of Malacañang tomorrow at 2 p.m.
> One of Quizon's philanthropic projects is the Dolphy Aid Para sa Pinoy Foundation that gives scholarships to deserving children of overseas Filipino workers.
> The Order of the Golden Heart was established in 1954 by the late President Ramon Magsaysay to recognize those who had rendered distinguished services or material aid to improve the condition of the masses.
- (17th of 18 by Firth.)
The Philippines has around 120-171 native languages (such as Ilokano, Itbayaten, Bukidnon, and many more) and 10 foreign language communities (such as Chinese, Korean, Arabic, etc). But some say that it would be better if we all spoke one language, as everyone would understand each other. I disagree. Misunderstanding is primarily a mindset, not a language barrier. I remember when my family lived in Egypt we had a German neighbour who didn't speak a word of English, yet somehow she and my mother carried on a remarkable relationship. They were always warm and embracing of each other, would make baked goods together, go on walks, and through a creative use of body language, intonation, and facial expressions, managed to chat about anything from the health of their children to upcoming travel plans.
We don't all need to speak the same language to relate to one another. The Swiss people have four main language groups, all of which are official: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. Yet they are all proud to be Swiss. Not only that, Switzerland is one of the most peaceful countries in the world, and prides itself on having remained neutral in multiple European wars. Even if you don't believe my claim that language differences can be easily overcome, there is no harm in holding on to your mother tongue in addition to learning whatever language you think is useful for greater communication.
Others say that it would be great if we all spoke one language for the sake of peace and unity. But peace and unity depend more on key social and economic conditions, such as equality of all people under law, fair access to resources, freedom and professionalism of the press, religious tolerance, education quality, economic opportunity, environmental stewardship, land rights, immigration factors, and others -- not necessarily on how few or how many languages a country has. The top 20 most linguistically diverse African countries, for example, contain countries in both the top most peaceful African countries (eg. Mozambique, Zambia, Cameroon, Tanzania) and the least peaceful countries (Chad, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Congo) according to the Global Peace Index. That is to say, linguistic homogeneity is not a prerequisite for peace, because for every unstable diverse country, you can find examples of countries that are both peaceful and diverse.
Similarly, countries with only a few languages can be unstable too. Of the 6 least diverse countries in Africa (based on Greenberg's Diversity Index), 4 are in the bottom 20% least peaceful countries, and one of them---Rwanda---was the setting for one of the worst genocides in the 20th century. It is clear that, if not a cause of inter-ethnic conflict, low diversity is no guarantee for peace. It is erroneous to think, therefore, that we would automatically be a more stable country if we had fewer languages. Instead, a country's ability to effectively manage its linguistic diversity is a more important ingredient for peace, and those countries that have embraced their multiculturalism, respected the rights of minorities, and tried not to dominate one ethnic group over another tend to be much more harmonious.
There are many countries that are both more linguistically diverse than the Philippines and more peaceful. Of the 23 countries that rank higher than the Philippines on Greenberg's Diversity Index (GDI), 21 of them are also more peaceful. This fact can't all be blamed on our economic woes, because many of the 21 countries with higher GPIs and GDIs are in fact poorer than the Philippines. One reason countries like South Africa, India, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea are more peaceful, despite being more diverse, might be because they have much more inclusive ethnolinguistic policies, such as recognizing regional languages and using vernaculars in education. The stability of Mozambique and Cameroon, meanwhile, might be attributed to the fact that they made foreign colonial languages the only official ones, thereby not favouring any indigenous group over another. These examples contrast with the Philippines, which does not treat its regional languages officially (even though the Constitution affords them some official status), does not include local languages in education, and has implicitly benefited one language group over all others in the promotion of Tagalog-based Filipino as the sole national language.
Of all the countries for which Global Peace Index (GPI) has been evaluated, the Philippines ranks in the bottom 20%. Many factors go into calculating a country's Global Peace Index, including levels of internal conflict, political instability, level of respect for human rights, violent crime, size of jailed population, etc., but suffice it to say that the Philippines is not a safe place. The propagation of the national language and successive presidents peddling nationalistic rhetoric have not improved the situation.
- (Firth states below that Diversity Shock has more installments. -Benjie)
As we've discussed, linguistic homogeneity is not a prerequisite for harmony. But is the opposite -- linguistic diversity -- outrightly good? In a previous article, I explored this question from an academic perspective. Languages contain a wealth of information that anthropologists use to study societies, biologists to study human evolution, historians to study history, and linguists to study language. Languages are rich scientific resources. But there are other advantages to sustaining linguistic diversity within a country.
This week I'll explore some of the other benefits of having many languages. Francois Grin divides the benefits of multilingualism into four main categories: 1) private market value; 2) private non-market value; 3) social market value, and; 4) social non-market value. These terms are a bit clunky, but to put it more simply: "private" refers to those qualities of multilingualism that mainly benefit the individual; "social" benefits are those for society as a whole; and "market" refers to those benefits that are economically, politically, or otherwise traditionally and concretely advantageous. "Non-market" benefits are those that benefit you in subtle ways, the kinds of things that you might appreciate but which might not be directly marketable for jobs or other people.
For now, let's discuss number one and two, the private values of multilingualism. That is, what are the rewards you, as an individual, may obtain from being able to speak more languages?
If you know many languages, you are likely to have access to a wider choice of jobs, because you will be able to apply yourself in a variety of contexts. I guarantee that, given all else equal, a city government in Ilocos will hire someone who speaks Ilokano, English, and Tagalog over someone who only speaks English and Tagalog, because he will be comfortable in interacting with practically anyone, no matter who enters the office and no matter what language is used. With a wider choice of jobs, you are likely to find a job that suits your interests best, and hence find work more fulfilling. With a wider choice of jobs you are also likely to find one that satisfies you financially. A Swiss study by Grin & Sfreddo (1997) found a correlation between the number of languages people knew and their salaries. When comparing thousands of people with different linguistic abilities and job positions, every additional language known results in an average increase of 4-20% in net earnings. If you speak more languages, it indicates to companies that you are adaptable, smart, eager to learn, and culturally aware, which is why multilingual people tend to get the juicier jobs.
Multilingual people also have access to lower prices and better access to information. This fact didn't seem obvious to me when I first read it, but it makes sense. When I go into the market and speak the local language, vendors treat me like a local, and give me local prices. The same thing for services too. A few weeks ago my foreign friends went to a launderette, where they were told they had to pay 50% extra if they wanted their clothes ready by the next day. To see if they were being ripped off, I went in the same day with my laundry. I asked them in Iloko, "Mabalin nga agsubliak tuno bigat?" They said yes, I could pick up the laundry tomorrow, and made no mention of a 50% surcharge! While you may disagree with the practice of charging different customers different amounts, it's a universal trait. In Mexico, India, Nepal, Cambodia, Egypt, and every other country I've been to, shopping is easier in the local language. There's an immediate familiarity and rapport established between shopper and buyer, usually deflating the need or desire for hostile bargaining. There's also the element of respect. By attempting to speak in the other person's language, you are showing that person respect. You are not forcing the person to operate on a level that behooves you, but instead are willing to swallow your pride and interact on their terms. I think one of the reasons people from Manila and foreigners rarely learn local vernaculars, despite years of living in the regions, is that they don't like the feeling of sounding stupid or not being able to communicate properly. It's difficult to start learning a language from scratch, so outsiders just stick to what they're most comfortable with English or Tagalog. The fact that these two languages are so widely understood makes it especially easy to avoid learning the local language, but what people don't often realize are the smiles, the helpful tips, the discounts, and the stronger friendships that they miss out on.
I was going to try to fit all the benefits of knowing more languages in this one article, but alas, there are more to tell. Till next week. And in the meantime, hold onto your languages!