Post by Dr. Mimo Caenepeel
A few weeks ago, a sideways reference in a larger news item about the current crisis in Northern Ireland caught my attention: the newsreader reported that ‘support for the Irish language’ was one factor in the complex breakdown of relations between Sinn Féin and the DUP. A quick online check gave me a bit more information. Just before Christmas, the DUP’s community minister Paul Givan decided to withdraw £ 50,000 in funding for an Irish Language (or ‘Irish Gaelic’) bursary scheme. Although that decision has since been reversed, Sinn Féin at the time called it ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’.
While arguably small fish in an ocean of news, this struck me as an interesting example of the impact of community language issues, not just on daily life but also on political processes. A ‘community language’ is a language used as their primary language by a community of people on a daily basis. While the number of people in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland who claim to have some knowledge of Irish is increasing (especially in urban areas like Dublin), the use of Irish as a community language is contracting; in fact, Irish is expected to disappear as a primary language by 2025. That puts Irish Gaelic (together with Scottish Gaelic) on the list of UK languages that are ‘definitely endangered’.
According to the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, half of today’s 7000 living languages are expected to be extinct by the end of this century. An estimated 25 languages a year (or one every two years) die, and the speed with which languages are disappearing is increasing. Is that a big deal? I think so. With each language that dies, a unique vision (and sometimes unique knowledge) of the world disappears as well. That is a big loss.
Can endangered languages be saved? Linguists and across the world are developing new technologies (such as mobile recording techniques that support transcription and translation) to document and preserve community languages. But what really keeps a language alive is young speakers.
Young speakers tend to like new technologies, such as mobile apps. They also like stories. One inspiring initiative I recently came across is Treasure Language. Treasure Language aims to revitalise small community-based languages in cities through storytelling in the community language, accompanied by interpretation (and the opportunity to ask questions) in English.
Encouraging ‘small’ languages to stay strong (alongside ‘big’ languages of communication such as English) aligns initiatives such as Treasure Languages with the key conviction behind Bilingualism Matters: languages matter, to people, political processes, the world and its future.