Learning an Endangered Language (Part 2)

In this post I’d like to elaborate on two issues raised in Part 1 and in the interesting discussion which followed.

The first issue is the tremendous variety of linguistic situations anthropologists find themselves in. By “situation” I also mean to include the language repertoire of the anthropologists themselves. Living and working in East Asia I have many colleagues who conducted fieldwork here in Taiwan. For many of these colleagues it was academic English with which they struggled, having studied abroad for their Ph.D. Americans pursuing advanced graduate degrees here in Taiwan have an easier time, since many of the texts are in English and they can submit their term papers in English. My Taiwanese colleagues were not so lucky and I’m tremendously impressed by their ability to write a Ph.D. dissertation in a foreign language, especially since some of them really struggled with written English.  Yet while some of them claim Hoklo, Hakka, or even an Aborigine language as a “mother tongue,” in many cases their ability to communicate in these languages is sometimes quite limited. This is directly connected to the theme of these posts – the fact that these are endangered languages. I will speak more on that next time, but the reality is that there are very few monolingual speakers of these languages in Taiwan, and one can almost always get by with Taiwanese Mandarin. A lot depends on the context in which one finds oneself, although I imagine that linguistic competence also affects which contexts one ends up in. I might hang out more with 80 year old Amis grandmas if I understood their (often naughty) jokes, but as it is I’m more likely to talk to their grand kids who can’t understand the jokes either.

Zora’s comment on the last post illustrates the nature of this diversity. Zora “did fieldwork in Tonga, in the South Pacific—where, luckily for [her], a history of British colonialism ensured that the intelligentsia spoke English.” She “went to an island in the Ha’apai archipelago” where many young people spoke English, but where (if I understand correctly) much of the older community was monolingual in Tongan, which she learned after a year and a half in the field (plus some tutoring before she had left). Compare that to Taiwan, where the dominant language is not English, but Mandarin Chinese. Although one could conceivably work entirely in the local language spoken at the field site, inability to speak or read Chinese would severely hinder one’s ability to do good quality academic research here. For instance, the textbooks I’ve used for studying both Hoklo and Amis are written in Mandarin. Also, one needs to be able to access scholarship published in Mandarin. (Or at least I should be doing that – I can barely keep up with my English reading list these days…) So while Zora could spend a year and a half learning Tongan, most American or European  scholars who come to Taiwan to do research spend a decade or more learning Chinese, and are at very different levels of progress when they get to the field. (Several colleagues I’ve spoken to who’ve worked in Taiwan or China have confessed to me that they just gave up on literacy and focused on conversational fluency instead.) From what I know about research in Arabic speaking countries the situation is somewhat similar: researchers first learn Classical Arabic, then the local vernacular, and if they have time also try to study a minority language as well, but don’t usually get very far.

This brings me to the second issue, which is that of working in a country with strong diglossia.

Wikipedia defines diglossia as: “a situation where a given language community uses not just one dialect, but two: the first being the community’s present day vernacular and the second being either an ancestral version of the same vernacular from centuries earlier (example: Arabic, Czech) or a distinct yet closely related present day dialect (example: the German speaking world).” Wikipedia goes on to say,

The dialect which is the genuine mother tongue is almost always held in low esteem; it is of low prestige. Its spheres of use involve informal, interpersonal communication: conversation in the home, among friends, in marketplaces. In some diglossias, the vernacular dialect is virtually unwritten. It may even be the case that those who try to give it a literature are severely criticized. The other dialect is held in high esteem and is devoted to written communication and formal spoken communication. Formal spoken communication typically encompasses university instruction, primary education, sermons, and speeches by government officials. It is usually not possible to acquire proficiency in the formal, “high” dialect without formal study of it.

This is the situation with both Arabic and Chinese, although the nature of the relationship is different, not just for the two languages, but for each country in which those languages are spoken. For a discussion of Arabic diglossia in Egypt, I highly recommend Niloofar Haeri’s work. She describes how even public speeches by officials in Egypt are translated from Egyptian Arabic into Standard Arabic before being printed in the papers. The situation used to be somewhat similar in Taiwan, but since the 1990s Taiwan has seen a revival of the use of local languages in some spheres, especially Hoklo, which was spoken by the former president on many formal occasions. Even the current president made a public display of his efforts to learn Hoklo when he was mayor of Taipei (I don’t know how far his studies progressed). Despite these changes, restrictions on the use of local languages in the past have already done their damage. But I’ll talk more about that in my next post…

ADDENDUM: I was thinking, while writing this, about how American scholars used to be expected to be able to read in French, German, and even Latin. Here in Taiwan many scholars are expected to know Japanese and Classical Chinese, since that is what most colonial era and earlier documents are written in. Luckily, I’ve gotten used to feeling ignorant and illiterate when speaking to scholars trained in either of those traditions.

2 thoughts on “Learning an Endangered Language (Part 2)

  1. Perhaps of interest: I find that I’m not that interested in Tonga these days. I’ve been doing library/net research on the Sistan basin, an endorheic basin fed by the Helmand River. Layer after layer of history. Poorly known but intriguing prehistory (Shahr-i-sokta), Achmaenids, Macedonians and Greeks, Parthians, Sassanids, Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Turks, Persians again, and these days, a mix of a provincial Persian culture (Sistanis), Pashtuns, and Baluchis. If I were to read all the possibly applicable historical literature, I’d have to learn several kinds of Persian, Classical Greek, Arabic, and Turkic. Present day research, Sistani, Pashto, and Baluchi, plus some French and Italian, IIRC, for the sparse archaelogical research. I also need to know about Zoroastrianism and Islam.

    More than one person could do in a lifetime. Glorious! The only relevant languages I possess are French and some long-forgotten classical Greek, and I don’t have the time/money/energy/lifespan to learn more. I wish the learn-a-language-in-one-download brain mods of science fiction were real.

  2. Thanks for your post…

    I very much want to learn one of the Mayan languages, but there is the competing desire of wanting to improve my spanish fluency to an academic level. And then, which Mayan language do I choose (i have it down to 3 or 4 possibles)? Many villages have their own particular dialects as well. How long will it take to learn, and do I really have the time. But how can I really study Maya stuff if I don’t bother to learn their language. I’m glad to see a post by someone facing similar issues.

Comments are closed.