Friday, January 14, 2011

Reviving Languages in the Classroom


In much discourse today, "tradition" looms in our minds as a monolith, imposing and utterly unmovable. But traditions are actually much more fragile than we often think, and even the best-intentioned attempts to preserve them can alter them radically.

A good example to illustrate this point is language. Language is the means by which we interact with people, without which no other tradition would be possible. Language obviously does not live by itself; it must be taught to each child that comes into the world, and must be cultivated by adults. Most people, though, never consciously thought, as they grew up themselves, about what language they were learning, nor do they consciously decide what language they will teach to their children. Children simply take their language in with their mother's milk--which is why the Germans call their native tongue their Muttersprache. Yet there are times when individuals and communities must make a conscious choice to hand down the language they have spoken for generations. This usually happens when another language has become dominant in the area, whether through demographic change or some socio-political reason. How many extinct languages in the world today are nearing extinction, supplanted by other languages?

Sometimes, the language will not die but will linger on its deathbed until it can be revived. Today languages are usually revived by means of classroom instruction. But traditions, such as a language, cannot really be revived in a school without changing the tradition itself. The moment formal instruction is needed to maintain the basic elements of a tradition, that tradition has changed significantly: the tradition is neither entirely old, nor entirely new, but a tertium quid. The drive to preserve the tradition, while it can save the tradition from extinction, never preserves the tradition entirely intact.

One example of such a language that nearly died out before being revived in the classroom, but has undergone great changes because of its revival, is Irish. By 1900 the Irish language was largely confined to poor rural areas in the west, such as the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry, Connemara and the Aran Island in Galway, parts of Mayo, and northwest Donegal (see the parts in green on the map to the right). These regions are known today as the Gaeltacht; Irish is still the ordinary means of communication in daily life there and is spoken on local radio and television. After gaining independence from Ireland, the new government made Irish an official language and introduced it as a mandatory subject in the schools. The language has even made something of a comeback in the towns and even in Dublin itself, often among the highly-educated. Because of these official efforts, Irish is enjoying something of a renaissance.

But, a strange thing has happened to the language, according to Brian Ó Broin: he has fears that there will be a "schism" between rural Gaeltacht residents and urban speakers, between those who grew up with the language and those who originally learned it in school. When members of the two groups meet, they actually prefer to speak in English because they cannot easily understand each other's Irish. As Ó Broin explains, Irish has many subtly different sounds, especially guttural sounds, that are very hard for a native English speaker to distinguish. And all these subtle differences are important:

Irish has a fairly sophisticated morphological system. That is to say, words can change form in several ways. The noun cainteoir, for instance, can mutate to gcainteoir, cainteora, chainteora, cainteoirí, and gcainteoirí, depending on its grammatical function. As we saw earlier, if the pronunciation of these mutations alters or fails, the entire grammatical system of the language becomes endangered.

One example that Ó Broin gives is that urban speakers did not "mark any masculine nouns that were in the plural or genitive." In this example, the urban speakers' failure to pronounce certain sounds correctly has led to a drastically simplified system for the declension of masculine nouns. What is being born is a new pidgin Irish spoken primarily by urban speakers, as opposed to the older, more complex form spoken in the countryside.

All this is interesting in itself (at least to amateur linguists), as an example of a language experiencing major changes in real time. It is also interesting, though, as an example of the unwitting harm preservationism can do to what it seeks to preserve. There is much reason for rejoicing at the successful revival of Irish through classroom learning, but Irish's shift from being the language of the poor to being a marker of middle-class education shows that much is lost even as a tradition is saved.
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