My good friend Cate Meehan, who serves as the faculty director for early childhood at Canterbury Christ Church University is in Ireland this week, attending the annual conference of the World Organization for Early Childhood Education, or OMEP as it is known by its French acronym. I always look forward to it when Cate attends a conference. She is very good at picking which conferences and which sessions to attend. Invariably, she garners exposure to a treasure trove of ideas both new and old, and she excels at evaluating these ideas critically and integrating the ones that pass muster into her ongoing work.
Today though, she forwarded to me a link to a very specific idea, or more accurately, to an organization that is dedicated to the pursuit of this idea. Cate knows me very well, and I’m assuming she sent me this link because she knew how I would react. The idea is unequivocally noble, and I have no doubt that the people who founded the organization did so with the best and purest of intentions. But it is precisely those good intentions that make the idea so terrifying, and I’d like to share it with you.
The link she sent me was to a project called the Endangered Languages Project, sponsored by an organization called the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity. To quote from their web site:
The mission of the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity is to accelerate, strengthen and catalyze efforts around endangered language documentation, to support communities engaged in protecting and revitalizing their languages, and to raise awareness about ways to address threats to endangered languages.
So why do I find this mission so terrifying? Isn’t diversity a good thing?
Diversity is undoubtedly a good thing. And while I don’t have a stack of peer-reviewed evidence at hand, my sense is that most competent scientists and business people have rich first-hand experience on the immense value diversity brings to any team-delivered endeavor. Amongst many other benefits, diversity is one of the single most effective mitigants to the risk of groupthink. And since language is surely one of the richest repositories of cultural intelligence that we humans possess, it would stand to reason that letting a language die carries an immense societal cost that we all have to pay. So what’s the problem?
The problem, in a word, is poverty. Have a look at the map that the Endangered Languages Project maintains. It is very well executed, and clearly communicates on one well-designed page the plight of many of these threatened tongues. But look closely at how these threatened languages are distributed. Without exception, the densest clusters of endangered languages are found amongst the poorest areas of the globe. People in these regions live in such dire poverty that even those of us who work in the developing world could not begin to comprehend what it means to live under such oppressive misery. This correlation between a high concentration of endangered languages and abject poverty is far from coincidental.
What does it take to get out of poverty? Myriad opinions exist on this of course, but surely some of the critical success factors would include education, financial inclusion, and the opportunity to engage in some kind of commerce or income-earning activity. In our lifetimes, we have seen innovations in all three of these areas that have changed the face of the world forever. According to the World Bank, the percentage of people in the developing world living in extreme poverty has fallen from 43% in 1990 to about 21% now (see source here). In other words, since the dawn of the internet, the number of people in extreme poverty has been cut in half. Fantastic news. But here’s the catch: access to these poverty-killing innovations is almost completely restricted to those who are able to speak one of the world’s major trade languages. Consider some specific examples:
- Education. The work being done by the Khan Academy is truly revolutionary and surely ranks with electricity, contraception and the internet as a world-changing innovation. But Khan Academy and other projects like it are only available in languages that are in wide enough use to make it a worthwhile endeavor to translate the huge amount of content.
- Financial Inclusion. Micro-lending is a life-changer around the world, and increasingly, traditional banks and lending institutions, like my client Equity Bank, are finding that providing capital to those who have never had access to it before is an invaluable addition to their business model. But once again, gaining access to even micro-lending sources is gated by the ability to have
a conversation with, or read a contract provided by,
the capital provider.
- Commercial Opportunity. Today’s digital market place gives every craftsman with a smartphone the ability to sell their wares around the world. Cruise Etsy some time and see how many people from the far-flung corners of the world are offering the work of their own hands. And despite this proliferation, the emergence of the digital marketplace is still nascent. In my time here, I’ve shown Etsy to six Kenyan artisans and shop owners . They had never heard of it, but they know it now. Within two weeks, four of them
emailed me back within two weeksasking to take a look at the sites they had set up. but youhave to know English to use it.
So you see, knowing a major trade language, like English, Mandarin, Spanish, or French is an absolute requirement to be able to access these poverty-killing innovations. Those who cannot speak or read one of these trade tongues are utterly condemned to a life of every increasing misery and despair.
But surely it is not an either-or proposition? In many countries like Denmark or the Netherlands, the ability to speak three or more languages is actually the norm. The issue, though, is that education is a zero sum game. Not in terms of money — education still offers the best return of any investment you can make in a human life — but in terms of time. In 2012 I had the opportunity to visit Runan Wan, a rural, impoverished school in Yunnan province in southern China. Many of the children who attended this school had to walk over two hours each way for the privilege of attending. The meal they received at the school was often the only full meal they were likely to receive that day.
Teaching the students of Runan Wan how to play Spoons
Most of the students and teachers at this school were from the Naxi ethnic group, as was the principal. I had a conversation with this principal, and asked him what percentage of the time they spent learning the Naxi language. He replied “None. Most of these students will stop school at year six. Every hour of education they receive is precious to them, and every hour spent on something that won’t help them improve their lives is a lost opportunity they will never get the chance to regain.”
So yes, I understand that letting these languages die has a huge cultural cost. And I am all for spending time, money, and effort to document and archive these languages, so that we can preserve as much as we can of the rich cultural heritage they contain. And anyone in a wealthy country who wants to learn Cornish or Basque as a hobby will undoubtedly discover huge cultural riches by doing so. But spending a poor student’s precious allotment of time in school on a language that bars them access to the amazing panoply of poverty-killing innovations today’s world has on offer is putting them in chains far stronger than iron.