A well-intentioned, truly horrific idea…

World Organisation for Early Childhood EducationMy 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:

  • Khan AcademyEducation. 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.
  • EQUITY-LOGOFinancial 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.
  • EtsyCommercial 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.


6 thoughts on “A well-intentioned, truly horrific idea…

  1. I’m hoping to assuage your worries: the preservation or study of endangered languages does not involve harming the speakers of that language. I’m not sure what you think people do to study and preserve minority or endangered languages but it involves scholars more than children. You can breathe easy.

    What is the worry you have? You don’t mention what the problem is, in your view. You say “The problem, in a word, is poverty.” I’m afraid “a word” is not sufficient to explain the logic. Endangered languages are found where poverty exists. OK, but what relationship exists between preserving or studying such a language and the poverty of its speakers? You didn’t explain that. I don’t see it. At the very end of your post you say something about “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.” but where did the idea that preserving or studying a language involves doing any of this?

    You link to the Endangered Languages Project that says:

    The Endangered Languages Project is an online resource to record, access, and share samples of and research on endangered languages as well as to share advice and best practices for those working to document or strengthen languages under threat. Visit FAQ page to learn more.

    And the quote you provided above does not mention anything about children in schools either.
    The video that explains the project clearly states it is a project involving Google and scholars and people who record speakers and such. There is no mention of anything to do with preventing English or other dominant languages from being spoken in areas where a regional language is in dire straits. No one is out there trying to prevent a dominant language from being used at all by a population. Your essay doesn’t explicitly state that you think this is a part of studying and preserving endangered languages but it is all I can guess you are imagining from what you’ve written. Don’t worry about that. That is not at all of interest to those interested in preserving languages. As the video says, one will preserve records of the languages through interviews, recordings and such. These languages are not going to come back to life, unfortunately. But we would like to have information about them preserved. In some cases we can preserve their presence in a community though cases like Hebrew and Catalan are really, really, really rare; languages rarely come back to life so fully that they can be used in professional and public life.

    Maybe you could write a second post explaining the correlation you are making between the study of dying languages and poverty. Usually people think of the correlation as being poverty amongst a people renders them less powerful and their cultural dimensions can be erased as they try to survive so the rich dominate the poor and kill the languages and customs of the poor. It is unclear what the relationship you are imagining looks like.

    Hopefully what I’ve said puts your mind at rest a bit.

    • Hi Valerie. Thank you so much for taking the effort to respond. I think there is a conversation to be had here; I would definitely like to understand better the goals you are trying to achieve. I have reached out to you (or at least to someone I think is you :-) on LinkedIn, in the hopes of setting up some time for us to talk. After we have had the chance to speak, instead of filtering your views through my own in a second post, I’d like to invite you to address the readers of this blog directly and let you write a post if you’re up for that.

  2. I think, FB, that one of the great,, and unknown, friends of the preservation of mainstream and obscure languages is Wycliffe Bible Translators. Besides the obvious, translating Scripture from one written language (English) to another (take your pick), they take languages that are NON-written and reduce them to writing, for the first time in the history of that spoken-only language. These are the obscure, poor-people, languages about which you speak. When the last person who speaks it is gone, so is the non-written language… forever. By reducing these languages to writing, and translating a major document (Scripture) into it, Wycliffe, as a byproduct of their own mission, to translate the Bible into every tongue:
    – Has preserved to writing, previously unwritten languages beyond their disappearance.
    – Has inventoried all languages (3250), a list that has been years in the making. 1900 remain to be reduced to writing and to have all or a portion of scripture translated. https://www.wycliffe.org/about/why
    – Has listed the trade languages (if any) for each indigenous language.
    – Teaches those who wish, to learn the new written version of their language
    When I was in grad school studying Theology and Ancient Near Eastern Languages, one of the truly fun practicums was to learn how Wycliffe was able to do this, even when the local and the translator had no language in common. We reduced some of the Navaho language to writing, and also the Hausa language… both from live speakers of the languages. Hausa is probably a language with which you are familiar given your stay in Africa.
    PERSONAL NOTE: My interest in this was rekindled when i sought a partnership between Rosetta Stone’s language teaching methods and need for a competitive edge, Wycliffe’s incredible linguistic base and need for a better teaching method for their languages, and my online graduate school’s need for a full blown language program.
    Alas my efforts were in vain as the upper management of the university declined to explore a partnership and a few months later abandoned the idea of an independent online university altogether
    John Geddis

  3. This post reminds me of how limited we are in the US regarding our language skills. Most of my European friends have a conversational knowledge of at least 3 languages some up to 7. This is highly unusual for a native citizen of the US. Children seem to learn additional languages easily when started young enough, so speaking one language at home and attending school in another seems realistic in most parts of the world. Breaking the poverty cycle requires the ability to communicate (in a trade language), but ensuring that a unique language and culture remain viable isn’t a mutually exclusive goal. What I have observed with the Native American communities where I live, is once the basic human needs are met, and the children are being educated, then attention turns to preserving the culture. The Yurok language is dying off quickly as the elderly pass away, but now efforts are being made to capture and record the language and customs so it will continue to enhance the tribal experience in the future. The children attend tribal schools to learn the language and culture of the tribe, and nothing is taken away from the main stream academic focus. It is no different than children attending Hebrew school to prepare for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The issue is meeting those basic human needs so there is energy and time left over to maintain the culture.

    • Your observations are spot on Catherine, particularly the one that societies turn to cultural education as soon as more basic needs are met. This is exactly the sort of behavior that Maslow’s hierarcy of needs would predict. The problem though is that the proponents of linguistic diversity are taking policies that would be fitting in societies that have the bandwidth for cultural education and proposing they be delivered to societies that currently cannot meet far more basic requirements. First-world ignorance at its worst.

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