Are languages dying out or just becoming more diverse?

This week we published Linguistic Genocide or Superdiversity? edited by Reetta Toivanen and Janne Saarikivi. In this post, Janne discusses the question of whether languages are dying out or whether, in fact, the world is just becoming more linguistically diverse.

Linguistic Genocide or Superdiversity?Since the 1990s linguists and anthropologists have become increasingly aware of the fact that most of the world’s languages are under threat of extinction. The main threat for languages comes from the erosion of their traditional communities due to urbanisation and changing ways of life, as well as improved standards of education and new working environments.

Languages today are used for entirely different purposes than in primordial societies. In communities characterised by agriculture, fishing, hunting or gathering, all the members of a community typically worked the same way and inherited their social roles from their parents and family. Language was primarily used as a means of oral communication.

A postmodern society, by contrast, is dependent on an elaborate division of labour, and also on the different social identities of their members. The most important tools for this identity creation are reading, writing and studying, i.e. activities carried out within language. For an increasing number of people around the world, language is both the main working tool as well as the main outcome of their work.

Languages are often measured and compared by the number of their native speakers. But for some purposes a more adequate way to ascertain the size of languages would probably be to measure the number of different texts composed in a particular language. For instance, languages such as Icelandic or Estonian have far fewer native speakers than languages such as Kanuri (in Nigeria) or Uighur (in China) but since they are national languages of independent states, countless texts are produced in them every day by language specialists in schools, ministries and media. This language use is currently evolving into an endless stream of text in social media, where practically every speaker of the language community is also an author of new text. Meanwhile other languages with more speakers but fewer elaborate societal functions have little use outside oral intercourse.

The modern language situation has been characterised as a genocide of languages, because so many languages have disappeared, but it has also been called unprecedented plurilingualism, where languages are used in more diverse ways than ever. In a modernising society some minority languages disappear within a few generations, sometimes almost without a trace. But in many contexts they also change, become creolised to a mixed code that carries and creates new types of modern identities in urban and virtual environments. For some minority languages this means more variation than before instead of disappearing.

The new social situation with more interaction in global networks and new media accelerates the pace of language change and creates new pidgins, creoles, mixed and intertwined codes. The languages of east and west are used in the growing multicultural urban centres of Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas in countless new mixed genres, some of which are bound to a particular city, others to a particular music style and clothing, still others to particular professions and education.

Is the world of languages thus becoming more or less diverse? Is the new linguistic variation somehow different from the variation that has been described in dialectological and sociolinguistic investigations for decades? There are some grounds to suggest that this is indeed the case. The difference is not so much that languages interact on a global scale, but that much of this interaction takes place in a written medium and is affected by standards and ideologies learned through ever more common formal education. Much of what happens in language contact has been described many times in studies concerning dialects, but other things are new: the fact that language use is now work for many, or the fact that language choice is one of the primary ways to create modern identities.

But can the new linguistic variation compensate for the languages of the hunters, gatherers, fishermen and nomads, many of which are already gone forever? And will it be long-lasting?

It is still fair to say that much of the world’s linguistic diversity is under threat. But its disappearance might not just be voices vanishing to silence. More likely, it is going to be like a star shining brighter than ever just before it explodes into a vacuum.

Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic LandscapesFor more information about the book please see our website. If you found this interesting you might also enjoy Jan Blommaert’s book Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes.




Cognate Vocabulary in Language Acquisition and Use

Last month we published Cognate Vocabulary in Language Acquisition and Use by Agnieszka Otwinowska. In this post, Agnieszka tells us a bit more about cognate vocabulary and explains the background to the cover image of her book.

Cognate Vocabulary in Language Acquisition and UseMy research interests lie in the broad area of bilingualism and multilingualism, defined functionally as the use of several languages for different purposes. The topic that I found particularly fascinating is the ways in which individual multilingualism (i.e. using several languages by one person) affects noticing and using crosslinguistic similarity. Such similarities in the area of lexis are known as cognate vocabulary (i.e. words that are formally and semantically very similar or even identical across different languages). We tend to notice them mostly in languages which are typologically close, and it is assumed that cognate words had a common ancestor word that they originated from (Lat. cognatus = blood relative). However, cognates also exist in typologically unrelated languages, such as Polish and English due to the historical processes of language contact and borrowing.

At a certain moment of my research and teaching career, I was quite amazed by the ‘discovery’ of cognates, which led me to studying the topic of crosslinguistic similarity and its role in multilingual language acquisition. I decided to investigate how cognateness ‘works’ across languages, because it is assumed that the existence of cognates should be helpful in learning. As a methodologist of language teaching, I was interested in finding out which factors influence noticing and using cognates, and whether sensitivity to crosslinguistic similarity, present in multilinguals, can be trained in other language learners.

I mainly focused on Polish and English because Polish is my native language, while teaching English is my main area of research. Thus, my entire research deals with the role of crosslinguistic lexical similarity and multilingualism with English as a part of a language constellation. My book Cognate Vocabulary in Language Acquisition and Use summarises my research on cognate Polish-English vocabulary, and on training vocabulary learning strategies, coupled with raising awareness of such words.

So, why is this book different from other books on multilingualism? I believe it is the focus on cognates and the scope of this work. Although cognates have been studied from various perspectives, there are also vast differences in methodological approaches, and even in the ways of defining a cognate, depending on the domain. Approaches to cognates differ in historical and applied linguistics, in psycholinguistics and in contact linguistics. My aim was to present those diverse perspectives in one volume and make use of the knowledge stemming from those different domains in my research.

The result is a unique monograph, which brings together linguistic, sociolinguistic, psycholinguistic and educational perspectives on the phenomenon of cognate vocabulary across languages. It predominantly deals with Polish-English cognates and their use by bilingual and multilingual Polish learners/users of English. However, since it discusses the universal processes of language contact in the macro scale (at the societal level) and the micro scale (crosslinguistic influences in the mind of an individual), the volume should appeal to international readers of numerous language backgrounds. Hopefully, the research presented here can also serve as an example for other language pairs and groups.

And just the final word about the image on the cover of the book. Aneta Pavlenko congratulated me on the choice, saying that there is a clear link between cognates and the photograph. Indeed, cognates are very much about certain repetitiveness of patterns (like the poles on the beach), and also about ‘giving a helping hand,’ in language learning (like the children). The photo was taken on holiday at the Polish seaside (actually not my favourite destination, as I prefer hiking in the mountains). Two of the children in the photo are mine, and they are rather proud to be featured on the book cover! All three kids are quite grown-up by now, and they all attend the same secondary school near Warsaw.

If you would like more ifnromation about this book please see our website. You might also be interested in New Perspectives on Transfer in Second Language Learning.

New Perspectives on Transfer in Second Language Learning

This month we published New Perspectives on Transfer in Second Language Learning edited by Liming Yu and Terence Odlin. Here, Terence tells us a bit more about language transfer and the issues examined by the book.

New Perspectives on Transfer in Second Language LearningLanguage transfer research looks at the influence of one language upon another. When learners try to acquire a new language, the knowledge they already have (as in the knowledge of their native language) can influence what they produce or understand inside or outside the classroom. Consequently, experienced language teachers often seek to understand better how transfer works and what they may do to deal with the reality of such influence.

Our volume brings together several innovative studies that shed light on transfer or, as it is also known, cross-linguistic influence. The studies brought together in the book consider such influence in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation as well as topics such as comprehension and social setting in relation to transfer.

Researchers as well as teachers will find a wealth of new insights on several topics including ones that have long been discussed. For example, the introductory chapter shows that the term transfer itself has had a long history in linguistics and was not introduced, as some conventional wisdom would have it, in the 1950s. The same chapter also provides new insights about the issue of predictions of transfer, offering a more optimistic outlook on the issue than is often found in other discussions.

The volume also presents several detailed analyses of transfer involving language contact in China, with most of these studies focusing on the influence of Mandarin on the acquisition of English. However, there is also one study involving the converse type of influence, that is, of L1 English on L2 Chinese. ESL or EFL teachers who are curious about, for example, the prepositional choices made by Chinese students will find an empirical analysis of particular cases, while another chapter investigates why ill-formed sentences such as “The Eiffel Tower sees easily from this window often seem acceptable to Chinese students.

Along with the empirical studies are ones looking at the broader picture, as in Chapter 2 by Scott Jarvis, which reviews (among other topics) some pioneering work using methods such as eye-tracking technology that suggest new insights about cross-linguistic influence. Considering the broader picture from a different perspective, Chapter 12 by Chuming Wang emphasizes the importance of the contexts in which learning occurs. The diverse perspectives of the volume are considered globally in the final chapter (by Terence Odlin), which discusses questions such as whether some linguistic-processing is language-specific. Although it may seem self-evident that people inevitably “think” in English, in Chinese, in Arabic, or in some other language, the notion of language-specific cognitive processes has proven controversial. What is clear, however, is that language transfer has a special relevance to the controversy and the new volume offers much to show that relevance.

Terence Odlin, Ohio State University

If you would like any further information about this book please see our website or contact Terence at the address above.