Monday, April 13, 2015

Endangered Languages: "Flogging a Dead Horse?"

UNESCO estimates that the end of this century could see the demise of more than half of the 6000 languages that exist in the world today. Most languages that are in danger of going extinct are those spoken in relatively remote regions, by indigenous populations. The importance of languages and diverse tongues cannot be emphasised enough. 

A Manner of Thinking
Language is arguably the most unique feature of the human species. Although there is no doubt that other species communicate with one another, spoken, signed and written language are unique to humans. As such, it plays a fundamental role in shaping our daily experience. In fact, psycholinguists have found that we perceive things a certain way based on the language we speak and think in. Research on colour perception shows that we can see the colours that we have names for, in our native languages. In English, there are eleven basic hues, from which the spectrum of perceivable colour is named. However, the Himba tribe in Namibia only has five basic hues. While English-speakers distinguish between red, orange and pink, the Himba people have an encompassing name for these hues, serandu. Experiments comparing children from the Himba tribe and England show that people perceive colours based on their culture and language. As this research demonstrates, if a language is lost, a truly unique perception of the world dies with it. 

Perception of the world is one aspect that is lost with a language, but what happens to culture? 

Cultural Coefficient
Globalisation today is a contributing factor to the loss of languages. In our attempts to shrink the world and move towards homogeneity, we lose cultural subtleties that exist in part, due to language. Let's look at example of what is at risk, by travelling to the hills in South India. 

The Toda language is of Dravidian descent, and is related to Tamil and Malayalam. In the last century, the population of the Todas has been in the range of 700-1000 people. However, the exact number is difficult to estimate. The Indian Government identifies the Todas as a Primitive Tribe. The Todas live only in the Nilgiri district in Tamil Nadu, and have a unique lifestyle with many traditions. They are a pastoral community, and live in barrel-shaped houses. Often, their houses are beside "dairy temples," as they trade dairy products, and their religion revolves around the buffalo. 
A Toda woman wearing traditional embroidered clothing (left); Todas live in barrel-shaped houses called dogles (right).

Globalisation and the push for modernisation in India have caused a change in the Todas. Although traditionally vegetarian, many Todas now eat meat. Several of them have abandoned their traditional houses for the more common concrete houses. This move away from tradition in combination with the small population of Todas left in the world has resulted in their language becoming critically endangered. This means that the youngest speakers of the language are currently grandparents or older, and they only speak their language infrequently. The Todas stand out in the Nilgiris because of the way they dress and live. If they adopt modern customs, they risk losing their traditions for good. 

Why Save Them?
It is vital to save languages that are at risk of extinction, because speakers have a unique perception of the world, and cultural traditions that few other people share. Since the human experience is subjective, it is crucial to preserve the very means that make us individuals. Losing languages would also mean that we lose idioms that are not easily transferred between languages. For example, a phrase that communicates a lack of understanding in German is "Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof", which literally translates to "I understand only train stations''. It is analogous to "This is Greek and Latin to me" in English. Imagine losing idiosyncrasies like that!

Intrigued? Take a look at the list of the 25 most endangered languages today. 

  1. Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. Paris, UNESCO Publishing. Online version.  

Friday, April 10, 2015

Linguistic Sexism: Can we make gendered languages more inclusive?
Author: Kelsey Briggs

To speakers of many romance languages, “gendering” nouns is an unconscious exercise that is ingrained in daily communication. In Spanish, all nouns and pronouns are ascribed either a feminine “la” or masculine “el”, similarly in French, Italian, and Portuguese. Assigning a gender to words like “la fresa” (strawberry in Spanish) or “le lion” (lion in French) is so second nature that it becomes easy to forget to question why every object, and more importantly, every person described in that language must be classified as either male or female. A rising debate in the linguistic world is how to address queerness and gender neutrality in languages characterized by gender binaries.

Some Spanish speakers choose to use the ‘’@’’ symbol in writing to be more gender inclusive (e.g.: tod@s instead of todos or todas), but there still remains confusion about how to verbally pronounce gender neutral or queer pronouns. Others propose to create an entirely new third gender pronoun, similar to “zie”, “xe”, or “they” in English. Incorporating gender neutrality into languages founded upon a system of gender binaries would be a challenge, but is certainly not impossible. 

In Germany, for example, gendered pronouns are transforming to be more arbitrary and inclusive.  Many propose getting rid of gendered articles entirely, and now in Low German both men and women are referred to as “de” instead of the previous “der” and “die”. The state justice ministry is pushing for citizens to adhere to “’gender-neutral’ formulations in their paperwork” as well.[i] While many linguists argue that it is difficult and cumbersome to change the grammatical structures of a language through human will, we see modifications in languages occur all the time. This is especially so with the introduction of new words and concepts that are adopted across languages due to the technology boom and globalization. Convincing an entire population to actively change the way they speak and in turn conceptualize gender, however, could be a more lengthy and arduous process.

A study in 2012 led by psychologist Jennifer Prewitt-Freilino compared languages with global gender inequality, showing that “those who read in gendered languages responded with higher levels of sexism to a questionnaire they took after the study.” Gendered languages showed the highest rates of gender inequality. Interestingly enough, however, languages with no gender ascribed to nouns or pronouns didn’t rank as well on the gender equality scale as predicted. Prewitt-Freilino said speakers of gender neutral languages, like Persian, are actually likely to assume male characters when the gender is up to the speaker’s discretion. Natural gender languages, such as English (in which gender is assigned to pronouns but not nouns), fell somewhere in the middle.[ii] The study thus showed significant variability among languages and gender equality. Based on these results, incorporating gender neutral pronouns into gendered or natural gender languages may not contribute to actively reducing sexist tendencies. However, recognition of non-binary identities remains a crucial issue in many societies, particularly in the interest of individual identities.

[i] Oltermann, Philip. “Germans try to get their tongues around gender-neutral language”. The Guardian. Mar. 24 2014.
[ii] Pappas, Stephanie. “Gendered Grammar Linked to Global Sexism”. Live Science. Feb. 21, 2012.

Monday, April 6, 2015

On Being a Third Culture Person

Third culture: When the answer to the question "where do you come from?" takes about 10 minutes to answer.
Coined by Dr. Ruth Useem, "third culture"isa phenomenon of globalization, the term was originally intended to refer to children who accompany their parents into another society and not necessarily people who have grown up and identify with more than one society. A common behavioral occurrence in third culture kids is in picking and choosing the parts of the culture that we identify with. However, although there are definitely privileges that come with the ability to travel so extensively, including bilingualism and the open-mindedness and more analytical way of thinking from being able to compare knowledge from different cultures, sometimes, it is a lonely life as a Third Culture person. So, what are these problems, and how can we approach them?
1) "Nobody understands me."
Being a Third culture person, a common occurrence is not being able to share experiences with other people who may not have the same desire to travel and explore the world, or have a  very narrow-minded outlook. However, third culture people are more common than you think, so head to any backpacker spots that you may know. Often times, it is these spots that draw other third culture people. Or, talk to the internationals in your building; perhaps you''ll find a fellow third culture person out there as well.
2) "I don't belong anywhere."
The contradiction of being a third culture kid is that you understand many different cultures, but don't feel like you belong in any of them. There is no pressure to completely belong in one culture; simply know the societal expectations and culture, and from there, you can at least pretend to belong even if you do not. However, often times, the problem in this saying is more personally. This leads to the next problem...
3) "I don't know who I am."
Born in Thailand, studied abroad, living in the US. Culture and nationality is a core part of a

person's identity. For third culture people, however, this is not a possibility, which leads to 

identity crisis. However, can it not be that to have more have one nationality tied to your 

identity, can itself be an identity? The question of identity is one that only you, the third 

culture person, can slowly cultivate. However, one thing is for sure, knowing you belong to 

one culture does not in any way mean that you know more about who you are. This is a 

problem everyone faces, not just third culture people.

So, are you a third culture person? If so, have you ever heard these questions in your head? Comment below!