Oppressed vs Endangered Languages

The discourse around endangerment linguistics need to be challenged to accurately communicate the oppression occurring, writes Rebecca Connell.

The discourse around endangerment linguistics need to be challenged to accurately communicate the oppression occurring, writes Rebecca Connell.

There are over 7,000 languages spoken or signed worldwide, 46% of which are considered endangered, disappearing at rate never before seen in human history.

Language endangerment occurs when Indigenous or marginalised communities are subjected to social injustice, such as oppression, exclusion, or stigmatisation, resulting the disappearance of the language.

“The field of Endangered Languages or Endangerment Linguistics has grown since its inception, but linguists have had little to no impact on global language endangerment,” says Dr Gerald Roche, an anthropologist and Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and Philosophy at La Trobe University. “There’s a failure to recognise the role politics has played in language endangerment. While there’s been advancements in the field, it’s failed to produce meaningful explanatory accounts of how endangerment occurs.”

Dr Roche has been studying endangered languages across China and the Himalaya, with a specific focus on Tibet, where he lived for eight years and worked as an applied anthropologist. He believes the leading inhibitor to preserving languages is resistance to significant social and political change.

“The elements of the world systems that structure our social and political realities, like the nation, state, and the capitalist economy, which work to create a system that is really hostile to linguistic diversity and justice,” says Dr Roche. “If we really want languages to survive, if we really want linguistic justice, we need radical change in the fundamental organisation of the global political system. There is just a lot of power organised around maintaining the status quo, a lot of resistance to change of the scale and scope necessary.”

Roche argues the current mechanisms and thinking involved in this field need to change, adopting more socio-political ideas and metaphors, in order to better tackle the issue.

“The way we talk about endangerment languages currently is by using metaphors from biology. I am trying to demonstrate that this way of thinking is limiting, and linguists need to adopt a new approach,” says Dr Roche. “When looking at how Indigenous people wrote about their languages and the challenges they face, the way they consistently write about it is as a social justice issue, a political issue, an issue of oppression. We linguists should seriously consider this rhetoric.”

Changing the rhetoric means changing the term endangerment to oppression, a term Dr Roche came upon from an article by linguist Alice Taff and colleagues in the “Oxford Handbook of Endangered Languages.” Taff writes that after exploring the underlying causes of language endangerment and loss, a driving factor is oppression via colonialism.

“When we talk about oppressed languages, it puts the emphasis on the agent; the power doing the oppression. If we look at the relationships and the processes that lead to the language being eliminated or oppressed, that gives us a point of intervention that I don’t think the endangered language discourse gives us.”

Roche also believes that cooperation and collaboration between linguists and political scientists could deliver more tangible results.

“There is hesitancy in the endangered languages community to treat this issue as a political one. They see it as outside the scope of their work; political intervention is beyond their expertise,” says Dr Roche. “On the other hand you have people working in social justice and politics seeing languages as beyond their field of expertise and concern. We need to bring these groups together to collaborate and support communities, sharing both forms of expertise. I think the assumption is politics and linguistics can’t mix because one is a science and one isn’t. But I believe there is grounds for some wonderful conversations to be had.”

Dr Roche explored language endangerment in a recent article Abandoning Endangered Languages: Ethical Loneliness, Language Oppression, and Social Justice published in American Anthropologist, and is now working on a book on language oppression.