While digging through piles of newspaper in my folks’ house, I stumbled upon a great article in the NYTimes Magazine that provides a glimmer of hope for both literacy and heritage tongues. It amazes me how new the written N’Ko alphabet is, relatively speaking. More importantly, as much as people protest the degradation of writing skills from the truncation involved with texting and now Tweeting, there is some reassurance that SMS can in fact enhance the vitality of a language and encourage more people to learn how to read and write. Technology is not the enemy in this case. In centuries past, languages were kept going by Bible translations. That’s not to say that missionary work is not still relevant. Rather, cellphones are a much more universal tool with benefits beyond interpersonal communication. Now, the main obstacle is affording the equipment and developing the firmware, something we tend to take for granted in the developed world. Perhaps all the mobiles phones that have been tossed aside for swankier smartphones can be repurposed for indigenous languages.
The blog post raised another fantastic point –
Whether a language lives or dies, says K. David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, is a choice made by 6-year-olds. And what makes a 6-year-old want to learn a language is being able to use it in everyday life. “Language is driven from the ground up,” says Don Thornton, a software developer in Las Vegas who specializes in making video games and mobile apps in Native American languages. “It doesn’t matter if you have a million speakers — if your kids aren’t learning, you’re in big trouble.”
Regardless of the language spoken, the vitality of a language and the multilingual capabilities that give people an edge in work and life hinge greatly on early childhood learning. Kids seem to soak up everything like a sponge, hence why we are loathe to use bad language around them. If a society want traditional languages to survive, it is crucial to include it from day one. My mother used Italian as a secret language with my grandparents when I was young, and I started understanding it around age seven. If only I had started earlier, maybe I would have more fluency and comfort. Imagine what could be done for endangered linguistics!