K. David Harrison is a linguist at Swarthmore College who documents languages. The Economist Online recently (Nov. 23) highlighted his work on 7,000 languages, half of which are disappearing "hotspots."
A hotspot is an area of language diversity that has low levels of recorded documentation, dictionaries and grammars. Among such places are Oklahoma, Paraguay, Siberia, India and Papua, New Guinea. Oklahoma makes the list because of declining numbers of Native-American language speakers.
Harrison argues people in general don't have a problem becoming bilingual, especially children. Recent research even shows that bilingualism strengthens the brain by building up "cognitive reserves."
This is like being able to reason and understand with more depth by getting into the mind's potential. Missing out on languages is akin to opting out on understanding important aspects of the world. Foreign-language words and grammars provide access to alternative points of view without requiring someone to abandon his or her own. Harrison refers to this as "taxonomy of meaning," and "cultural backdrop."
But a negative trend is developing, even among mainstream languages. Some major colleges are downsizing the cathedral languages. These often include French, Italian, Portuguese and German. Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, recently told The New York Times that program cuts revealed an "Anglocentric perspective" that fluency in English is enough to understand the world.
Too often, the language-teaching field responds to a belief there is room for some but not all languages. The current view is that tight budgets justify cutbacks on courses leading to majors and advanced studies. The downside is that the fad languages of the moment get the bulk of the attention, says Feal, and "we don't create a steady infrastructure."
Before memories fade altogether, it matters that there was a keen awareness right after 9/11 that we were ill prepared in Middle East languages. A sudden enlightenment arose that too few of our nationals spoke, wrote and understood Arabic, Farsi, Pashto and other critical languages like Hindi and Mandarin.
Now we seem to be lapsing back into complacency, one in which higher education approaches don't appear to be helping matters. Nor does it help that many people believe a college education is more like vocational training for earning a living and less important as building capacity in the population, even though vocational training has a short shelf life and intellectual capacity is life-long.
An idea -- a good one -- arising from the public-policy school at the University of California, Berkeley, is to develop a language corps that would build a reserve of fluent non-English speakers. Who's to say that enrollees in a Reserve Language Corps could not receive a small stipend or a tax credit, or some similar incentive for maintaining a needed language skill that's available for national service in the event that knowledge is needed.
One example at this moment is the surge in demand for Korean speakers now that a free trade agreement seems to be in the offing. Korean literacy will help the United States interpret relations between the two Koreas and also with China and Japan.
Universities that downsize foreign languages and linguistics studies may never make their departments into the profit centers like business administration and engineering, but that does not mean language studies are not vital to the nation.