Friday, February 8, 2013

Let dying languages die

The Los Angeles Times had a story yesterday on school children in Northern California being taught the nearly extinct language of the Yurok Indians. Everyone quoted in the story elderly Yuroks, the teachers in the program, a professional linguist seems to think this is a swell idea because it will prevent the language from dying out. (You can read the story here.)

But no one seems to be asking a key question: Is this good for the students?

Under the program, elementary and high school students spend precious class time studying a language that is spoken by only about 400 people on Earth, almost none of whom use it as their primary language. As the story notes, only 17 people are considered "conversationally fluent" in Yurok.

So while the program pleases a few academics, it gives kids a skill that is virtually worthless. Why not spend the class time having them learn Spanish, or Mandarin Chinese, or any of the many widely used languages spoken around the world?  Why not give the stidemts a skill that will be valued by employers, help them to travel confidently to other countries and allow them to communicate with millions of people, not just a handful?

Languages die out as a natural part of cultural change. This is not something we should mourn. The loss of a language means that more people are sharing a common tongue and can communicate clearly and freely without translators or the risk of misunderstanding. That's a good thing.


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