By Conor Godgrey on April 29, 2011
An article recently published in the journal Science on linguistic diversity echoes an earlier article about the decline of native languages in South Africa.
Linguists had long since decided that searching for a root ancestral language, the mother of all languages if you will, was either ridiculous or moot.
Renowned linguist Dr. Quentin D. Atkinson applied techniques usually reserved for studying genetics to the study of language.
His theory goes something like this: it is well documented that genetic diversity decreased as human beings moved further from the African continent.
This occurred because small (genetically more similar) sub groups would break off of the main thrust of the various migrations and settle a specific area.
Dr. Quentin posited that language might have experienced a similar homogenization as languages traveled further and further from Africa.
He did not measure this using words, but phonemes, the basic building blocks of language.
A phoneme is the “smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances.”
In other words, the basic sounds that make up more complicated utterances like syllables and words.
It turns out that linguistic diversity, as determined by the number of phonemes, does indeed decline in relation to how far a language developed from Africa.
The New York Times cited several examples from the full study: “Some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes, whereas Hawaiian, toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa, has only 13. English has about 45 phonemes.”
Now 50,000 years later, the genetic offspring of those migrating ancestors have released the phoneme-inferior but immensely powerful English language to homogenize the source language(s)!
As noted in the Economist article, native (an incredibly relative term) South African languages are jeopardized by the ubiquity and power of English (mother tongue for 8% of South Africans).
Khosian and Bantu languages alike are unlikely to survive as the mother tongue of most South Africans in six or seven generations unless the government acts on its rhetoric and takes steps to enforce their use in schools.
I am unsure this is even a good idea.
It would only work in incredibly homogenous parts of South Africa, and there is no denying that English offers more economic advantages than Zulu or Khosa—who is the government to tell people that they cannot educate their children in the most economically favorable conditions possible?
For me, thinking about Africa as a “source” is incredibly inspiring; but modern adults should not be saddled with the burden of protecting the source code while missing out on real-life opportunities.
Thank you for this article. I think your perspective–that English is the best economic choice for students–is common, but it it misses the ‘how’ part of the equation. The best way to get a good education is through the mother tongue, using the mother tongue as a bridge to English (or French or…). A mother-tongue-first education actually produces better and more successful students, students that will become bilingual in their language and a major language (like English), biliterate and bicultural.
Here’s a good paper on this issue: http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/en/docs/Language_Education_the_Missing_Link.pdf
Wonderful comment- thanks Doug. That argument makes quite a bit of sense.
The only problem I could see would be urban areas or culturally mixed rural areas where there would be no easily identifiable mother language for all children. There would have to be language-magnet schools, which might deepen cultural cleavages.
However, in more homogenous areas, with an identifiable lingua franca, that argument makes a lot of sense.
I agree with the sentiment that teaching in mother languages can often create issues, the least of which is school books. While Touré was in charge of Guinea for some 25 years, school was not taught in French despite the vast lingual diversity of the small country. I’m sure he promoted this policy for nationalistic reasons, but the locals, in retrospect were quick to say that it was a political maneuver to keep the ethnic lines clear and therefore, the country divided and unable to rise up and demand reform as they shared no common language. This is of course based on old men talking in a small village, so I welcome the validity of this being questioned as I have no concrete evidence.
On the other side of this, starting in 2004 or 2005, Morocco recognized three Berber languages/dialects and began producing school books in these languages as an attempt to keep them alive. This means that the country has a total of four official languages: Berber, Arabic, French, and Spanish, so needless to say, they have some experience in this department. When they play the nightly news, it is done four times (for example: Arabic at 8, French at 8:30, etc.)
My point is, as long as there is a desire to have keep the language alive on the part of the people, the state needs to recognize that and react accordingly. However, they must also, as Conor notes, provide a bilingual education so as not to put their citizens at a handicap.