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http://www.guardian newsngr.com/ arts/article01/ /indexn2_ html?pdate= 161008&ptitle= Why%20indigenous %20and%20endange red%20languages% 20should% 20be%20preserved
Why indigenous and endangered languages should be preserved
By Kabir Alabi Garba
Thursday, October 16, 2008
THE threat is real. Within the space of a few generations, the fear looms large that "more than 50 per cent of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world may disappear". The risk is so high that "less than a quarter of those languages are currently used in schools and in cyberspace, and most are used only sporadically. "
The situation is compounded by the fact that "thousands of languages - though mastered by those populations for whom it is the daily means of expression - are absent from education systems, the media, publishing and the public domain in general."
Indeed, debate on the endangered languages, mostly indigenous, and the need to prevent, with utmost urgency, the catastrophic consequence that their disappearance might unleash on humanity has become subject of global concern with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) playing no less a mean role.
This concern was re-enacted on Tuesday in Paris, France when the global body dedicated the theme of its 180th session of the Executive Board to Protecting Indigenous and Endangered Languages, and the Role of Languages in Promoting Education for All (EFA) in the Context of Sustainable Development.
The debate attracted language experts from across the globe. The renowned linguist, Emeritus Prof. Ayo Bamgbose of the University of Ibadan (UI) featured as one of the lead speakers. Bamgbose's choice was to acknowledge his pedigree as the only scholar from Africa to hold the prestigious Honorary Fellowship of the Linguistic Society of America.
Apart from being professor emeritus for Linguistics and African Languages at UI, Bamgbose has been visiting professor in several universities in the United States (U.S.) and Europe, including the Institut fir Afrikanistik in Leipzig, Germany. His contributions to African linguistics cover, among others, Yoruba Language and Literature as well as the role and varieties of English Language in Africa.
One of his major concerns has been the language question in Africa, particularly with reference to education and nation-building, in theory as a sociolinguist and as an expert adviser to institutions involved in language planning, language policy and implementation on the national and global levels like the UNESCO.
The Language expert therefore commended the organisation for organizing the "Thematic Debate" expressing the belief that "this kind of high-profile forum is bound to give greater visibility to indigenous languages, most of which are marginalized. "
UNESCO, the erudite scholar acknowledged, "has been in the forefront of promotion of documentation and promotion of research on endangered languages. Initiatives by the Organization include the International Clearing House for Endangered Languages based in Tokyo, the publication of the Red Book on Endangered Languages and the compilation of an Atlas of Endangered Languages all over the world."
But the initiative, Prof. Bamgbose claimed "originated from the Permanent International Committee of Linguists (CIPL) which sponsored a resolution adopted at the 15th International Congress of Linguists, held in Quebec in 1992. This resolution called on UNESCO to make it an urgent task to promote and sponsor programmes for the description and collection of texts in endangered languages, since "the disappearance of any one language constitutes an irretrievable loss to mankind". CIPL collaborated with CIPSH in getting UNESCO to accept protection of endangered languages as one of its programmes."
He went further, "Although linguists are more interested in documentation of endangered languages in terms of describing their sound system, grammars and compiling wordlists and dictionaries, I do not accept that linguistic preservation is the goal that should be aimed at. Considering a people's right to their language and provided, of course, that speakers of the language concerned are determined to preserve their language, revitalization, as is being done with the Mayan languages, is a more desirable objective. This will mean an active use of the language in different domains.
"In the three presentations we have listened to this morning, it is clear that not all indigenous languages are endangered. Clearly, both Icelandic and Yoruba are not endangered, since they are actively used in communication and as a medium of instruction in schools. Many of the languages of the Maya are clearly endangered. The question has been asked, "What is an endangered language?"
For recognizing an endangered language, he listed six criteria. They are:
* The language has few speakers remaining and most of them are old.
* Little or very restricted use of it is made in communication in the community.
* It is not being transmitted to the younger generation.
* There is no orthography or no written materials in it.
* Language shift has taken place such that the language has been or is being replaced by another language.
* It is on the verge of extinction.
The link between indigenous languages and EFA, according to Prof. Bamgbose, "is or should be, an obvious one. When the World Congress on EFA took place at Jomtien, Thailand in 1990, there were high hopes among the participants that the Year 2000 will herald the dawn of education for all. This golden deadline has receded as the years roll by and the hopes raised have remained unfulfilled. The new magic deadline is now 2015. I want to say that EFA cannot succeed until indigenous languages are used as the medium of instruction in schools.
"The present system, in African countries in particular, relies on poorly trained teachers who are expected to teach in English or French in which they themselves are not competent. What is true of EFA is also true of sustainable development. Strategies of development in developing countries are predicated on the educated elite who is able to conduct public and private sector business in an imported official language. True sustainable development requires the participation of all and this cannot be achieved until the language of development is liberalized to include those languages spoken by the vast majority of the population."
The ultimate goal in this kind of debate, Bamgbose stressed, should be the empowerment of indigenous languages "so they can participate effectively in education and development. "
But the seed of the debate last Tuesday was actually sown on May 16, 2007 when the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the year 2008 as 'International Year of Languages' with emphasis on safeguarding endangered languages.
The proclamation, the General Assembly underscored, was in recognition of the fact that "genuine multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding. "
But for UNESCO, the declaration came with the task of co-coordinating activities for the year, not only to fulfill its role as lead agency, but also to ensure that the goals of the proclamation are achieved absolutely within the appointed period. And in the pursuit of this mandate, the culture organisation dedicated last February 21, the ninth edition of its yearly anniversary of the "World Mother Language Day," to celebrate year 2008 as international year of languages. Director-General, UNESCO, Mr. Koichiro Matsuura, on that occasion, asserted that "the date of February 21, 2008, that of the ninth International Mother Language Day, will have a special significance and provide a particularly appropriate deadline for the introduction of initiatives to promote languages."
The Organization concurred to undertake the task, according to Matsuura, because of its awareness "of the crucial importance of languages when seen against the many challenges that humanity will have to face over the next few decades."
Languages, he went further, "are indeed essential to the identity of groups and individuals and to their peaceful coexistence. They constitute a strategic factor of progress towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between the global and the local context.
"They are of utmost importance in achieving the six goals of education for all (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on which the United Nations agreed in 2000.
"As factors of social integration, languages effectively play a strategic role in the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger (MDG 1); as supports for literacy, learning and life skills, they are essential to achieving universal primary education (MDG 2); the combat against HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases (MDG 6) must be waged in the languages of the populations concerned if they are to be reached; and the safeguarding of local and indigenous knowledge and know-how with a view to ensuring environmental sustainability (MDG 7) is intrinsically linked to local and indigenous languages.
"Moreover, cultural diversity is closely linked to linguistic diversity, as indicated in the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity and its action plan (2001), the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005)."
Matsuura reiterated the concern in the global literary circle that "more than half of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world face extinction because they are not represented in government, education and the media."
Since "literacy, learning, social integration. .. everything transits through language, which embodies national, cultural and sometimes religious identity for each person," Matsuura thundered, "We must act now as a matter of urgency."
But how? "By encouraging and developing language policies that enable each linguistic community to use its first language, or mother tongue, as widely and as often as possible, including in education, while also mastering a national or regional language and an international language.
"Also by encouraging speakers of a dominant language to master another national or regional language and one or two international languages. Only if multilingualism is fully accepted can all languages find their place in our globalized world.
"UNESCO therefore invites governments, United Nations organizations, civil society organizations, educational institutions, professional associations and all other stakeholders to increase their own activities to foster respect for, and the promotion and protection of all languages, particularly endangered languages, in all individual and collective contexts.
"Whether it be through initiatives in the fields of education, cyberspace or the literate environment; be it through projects to safeguard endangered languages or to promote languages as a tool for social integration; or to explore the relationship between languages and the economy, languages and indigenous knowledge or languages and creation, it is important that the idea that "languages matter!" be promoted everywhere."
The common goal, he insisted, "Is to ensure that the importance of linguistic diversity and multilingualism in educational, administrative and legal systems, cultural expressions and the media, cyberspace and trade, is recognised at the national, regional and international levels."