Science Interviews


Sun, 19th Feb 2006

The Survival of Languages

Professor Peter Austin, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

Part of the show Chinese Medicine and the Healing Power of Plants

Peter - Human beings have been around and speaking languages for a hundred thousand years or so. Even if you have two communities who speak the same language all languages are constantly changing. New words are coming in while old sayings are going out, and over a period of time, those languages will drift apart until you get to a point when they can't understand each other. Then you have two separate languages.

Anna - This to me sounds very much like the evolution of species, say on an island. Is the loss of some of the minor languages not survival of the fittest?

Peter - Ok, there's no genetic relationship between who we are and the language that we speak. Any child can learn to speak any language. There's no requirement that I have to be a kangaroo and not be an elephant. So there isn't a parallel to the species argument from biology because language is a cultural aspect. We can have multiple languages coexisting in the same domain or space. It's not that languages are competing with one another, it's rather that politics, economics and social power of one group is forcing other smaller groups to abandon their ways of speaking.

Anna - But are there not some benefits to having one language or fewer languages?

Peter - In the modern world, particularly in the last 50 or 60 years, there's been this belief that mono-lingualism is the way of the future. Well that's simply false, and there are a number of reasons why. One is that even if people speak the same language, it doesn't mean they understand each other and it doesn't mean they're able to communicate. It doesn't stop conflict and misunderstanding. Look at Northern Ireland and the conflict and troubles we had there. The second thing is that you and I speak English, but I still have tremendous trouble understanding lots of people here in the UK. My bank has a call centre which is located in Glasgow and I have a terrible time understanding these guys! We're supposed to speak English, but in fact it's incomprehensible what these people are producing from my perspective. So there are two issues: one is yes, languages of wider communication are valuable but it doesn't follow that you have to give up your own language in order to learn that bigger language of wider communication.

Anna - So it really is true that diversity id the spice of life as far as languages are concerned.

Peter - Yes and it has huge value too. It has huge economic value. It has huge political value and it has cultural value for people to be able to maintain their own cultures and languages while participating in the wider world. Mono-lingualism is a curse of the modern world and that's where the danger really lies. People can believe that by giving up languages they will be advantaged. They won't be.


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