Are Native Languages Worth Saving? A Globetrotting Scholar Says Yes
Geography Professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond, the author of books on how societies succeed and fail, argues in a lecture that being bilingual or multilingual is good for cognitive skills, for memory in later years and probably for your country. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes was on hand for the discussion.
The usual reaction to news that languages are fast dying out — at such a pace that possibly only 200 of the world's 7,000 languages will be passed on to children by century's end — is a shrug. Don't multiple languages just divide people and cause deadly conflicts?
No, they don't, answers Geography Professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond. On the contrary, speaking two or more languages has big advantages for both individuals and groups. Recent research shows that bilingualism promotes a key cognitive skill called executive control, staves off Alzheimer's disease by about five years and cuts the frequency of Alzheimer's symptoms nearly in half. These are arguments that can be advanced over and above those about the preservation of cultural identities and access to the world's written and oral traditions.
"Thinking and talking bilingually are the best brain exercise for maintaining brain strength," more effective than playing bridge or solving Sudoku puzzles because of the sustained effort involved, said Diamond, a physiologist who is famous for such books as "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" and "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed."
Diamond's April 9 lecture in Charles E. Young Grand Salon was part of a series of forums created by colleagues at the Universidad de Guadalajara (UdG) to honor the late Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. Among the 150 guests gathered for Diamond's lecture was Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist and man of letters who cofounded the series. The event was organized by UdG's Los Angeles branch and the UCLA Latin American Institute.
When Europeans arrived in the Americas, there were substantially more than 1,000 languages spoken by native groups. Linguists give very few of those any chance of surviving past 2100. Radio broadcasts in Navajo and Yupik Eskimo may help those two North American languages persist, Diamond said, and the principal languages of past Aztec, Inca and Mayan civilizations still boast a million or more speakers each.
The largest of these languages today, with about 6 million speakers, is the Inca Empire language of Quechua. It was still the majority language in the Central Andes when Diamond first visited the region in 1963. Today, roughly 10 percent of the people there speak it, and "all three of these biggest Indian languages are rapidly declining."
Although guns, germs and steel from Europe and national policies share the blame, the main enemy that's killing indigenous and minority languages is modern life, Diamond said.
"Quechua is not going to help you get a job, a good job, or watch television. Nor will Nahuatl," said Diamond, referring to the language of Moctezuma. He noted that children of native speakers of these languages fail to learn them for reasons similar to those cited by second-generation Mexican Americans, for example, who do not learn Spanish.
Diamond argued that languages are valuable to whole societies partly because they promote group cohesion and pride. Small nations and minority groups within countries do better when they can preserve their mother tongues in addition to learning a dominant language such as Spanish, English or Mandarin Chinese.
"Denmark is one of the richest countries in the world, although virtually the only people who speak the Danish language are the five million Danes," Diamond said. "Danes are rich because almost every Dane fluently speaks English and one or two or three other European languages, which they use to do business. Danes are rich, and they're happily Danish because they speak Danish."
To slow the death of languages, he said, we could begin by not demanding that others give them up. Until about 25 years ago, Diamond observed, the United States prohibited the teaching of native languages in public schools, on pain of severe corporal punishment. Today, by contrast, $4 million in federal funds goes to preservation efforts.
The money "spread over 400 languages . . . doesn't go very far," he said. "But at least it's something that can be used to train linguists, so that the linguists can record those Indian languages that are still being spoken."
Taken to its logical conclusion, Diamond said, the argument that everyone should focus on big languages to the exclusion of their mother tongues would mean that most people in the audience ought to give up English and Spanish for Mandarin Chinese, the world's biggest language. That, he remarked, would render Fuentes "a foreign author for Mexicans writing in a dead language for a few Mexican students taking foreign language courses."
Over a campfire in New Guinea, a singularly multilingual place where Diamond has conducted extensive fieldwork, he once asked a group of 20 locals how many languages each spoke. The responses, he said, ranged from 5 to 15 languages, with several people speaking between 8 and 12 of them. Diamond himself falls into that category, having learned Latin, classical Greek and nine spoken languages in addition to English.
More research is needed, he said, to show how much good the effort has done him, for example, whether or not he gets 55 years of protection from Alzheimer's.
"If the earlier you learn a language, the better, then I'm in trouble, because I didn't learn my first spoken foreign language until I was 12 years old," he said. "My hope is that research will show that it still does you good to learn another language (Italian) at age 62, as happened to me."
Published: Wednesday, April 14, 2010