Dying Languages and Cultural Identity

My struggle with Mandarin has been on and off for the past two and a half years. Recently, I have been committed to meeting my tutor once a week and have been trying to study on my own on a more regular basis. This past Thursday, I had a pleasant (simple) conversation with my cab driver on the way to a doctors appointment (check that one off my bucket list FINALLY!) and was feeling confident in my Mandarin. So much so, that I was able to initiate some small talk with the nurse who was helping me. I went home elated, feeling like finally, I was starting to get it. Then I met my tutor. After some simple sentence pattern practice, I realized, I still wasn’t even close to starting to get it. Learning Mandarin was going to be a lifelong commitment, if I ever decided to fully commit.

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Anyways, my point today is not about learning Mandarin. My tutor brought in a graphic to show me about the Speak More Mandarin, Speak Less Dialects campaign in Singapore. This initiative, started in 1979, intended to unite Singaporeans by encouraging them to speak Mandarin, instead of their regional dialect. The results, over a 30 year period were interesting. Local dialects did indeed disappear, but instead of the number of Mandarin speakers increasing, it decreased while English speakers surpassed the number of Mandarin speakers in 2008. I immediately felt guilty.

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It has been weighing heavily on my mind, that I am a killer of culture, a neo-colonial foot soldier, and I am re-hashing issues of guilt I struggled with at the start of my ESL career. Am I a culprit of linguacide?

I decided to do some research.

Language is a huge part of cultural identity, probably the biggest piece of the foundation. It is a way people preserve their culture through generations. In the history of colonialism around the world, language is usually the first thing to be attacked on the mission to assimilate the colonized peoples into a new culture. I read in a National Geographic article that in 2100, over half of today’s spoken languages will be extinct.

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In the United States alone there are 191 languages spoken. Here I was thinking it was just English, and some Spanish and Chinese pockets here and there, completely forgetting about Native American and Inuit languages. Therein lies the problem, I forgot about them. I forgot about the entire native culture of my home country. People who are already marginalized are now being forgotten, disregarded completely and considered unimportant. I’ve been trying to ask myself why it is so important to preserve these small cultural communities, why is culture important? Why is having a unique cultural identity so much better than a worldwide community that shares the same language, thoughts and belief system?

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With every language that dies, a part of human knowledge is erased. If we keep erasing ourselves bit by bit, in time, there will be nothing left, just a blank slate. Humanity will disappear and we will operate more like a singular uniform machine.

Language defines a culture, through the people who speak it and what it allows speakers to say. Words that describe a particular cultural practice or idea may not translate precisely into another language. Many endangered languages have rich oral cultures with stories, songs, and histories passed on to younger generations, but no written forms. With the extinction of a language, an entire culture is lost.

Much of what humans know about nature is encoded only in oral languages. Indigenous groups that have interacted closely with the natural world for thousands of years often have profound insights into local lands, plants, animals, and ecosystems—many still undocumented by science. Studying indigenous languages therefore benefits environmental understanding and conservation efforts.

Studying various languages also increases our understanding of how humans communicate and store knowledge. Every time a language dies, we lose part of the picture of what our brains can do”

National Geographic “Disappearing Languages” http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/enduring-voices/

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Taiwan has been colonized by many countries, the Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese have all had their time of rule in Taiwan. Today, the official language is Mandarin Chinese, while most of the population speaks Taiwanese in the home, and there are over 30 aboriginal languages still spoken in tribal villages. Some of the older generation, my friends grandparents, speak fluent Japanese being educated during the Japanese occupation. Most of my friends speak Taiwanese at home with their families, especially their grandparents, however it is becoming less and less common. My roommate was recently scolded by his mother because she said his English was better than his Taiwanese.

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So where does my role as an ESL teacher fit into all of this. Well, I thought I was doing my part trying to learn Mandarin. I hate living in another country and forcing my native language on other people, I am the outsider so I should be the one trying to assimilate, being put in situations where I have uncomfortable words on my tongue and my voice is not my own. I try, I do. I know that I should be the one adapting to my surroundings, not forcing them to adapt to me. But my job is to take students out of their comfort zone to learn my language. Does that make me a perpetrator of cultural genocide? Yes, No. A bit. I’m not sure.

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I would NEVER want to strip anyone of their cultural identity. It is as inhumane as severing a limb. But it is not so much that I am impressing my culture on other people, I take care to teach English as a FORIEGN language. Not one that they must use all the time or on a daily basis, but one that can be used as a tool for travel or education or entertainment. That is why I would never go back to working in an “English Only” buxiban environment, because in that sense, I did feel like I was overstepping my bounds as a foreign guest.

Now, I am not so sure if I am part of the problem, or just a cog in the machine.

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