Saturday, January 1, 2011

heritage languages

Many Americans don't give a thought to what their heritage language is. No doubt this is partly because we are titans of assimilation and monolingualism (and I don't mean that entirely as a bad thing -- it's no doubt the reason why it's not ridiculous to speak of "Americans" in a country with dozens of ethnic groups spanning almost 4 million square miles). I'm only the third generation born in the U.S. on my maternal side, and I know exactly three phrases in German (excluding things I learned outside my family), and one of them is "Gesundheit". I think another reason we don't think about heritage languages is that we have so many of them. I don't know if I know a single second-generation (or greater) American who has ancestors from a single ethnic group. Depending on which line I'm tracing, my "heritage language" might be German or Scottish or Irish (or maybe even Italian or Hungarian -- old census and shipping records aren't the clearest).

In another sense, we all speaker our "heritage language", if we define heritage language to refer to the language of the culture we identify with. While the U.S. has no official language, English has become the de facto lingua franca, with 82% speaking it natively and up to 96% fluently. Insofar as English is the national language of the U.S., and insofar as I consider myself an American, English is in some sense my heritage language. But I think for many people that use the word "heritage", it means a lot more than this. It's not just about genes or cultural affiliation, but about self-identification. If a German child is adopted by Lakota parents and grows up speaking Lakota without knowing a word of German, is Lakota his heritage language any less than his parents? I don't doubt that there are many who would say "yes", but it's a touchy subject trying to foist heritage languages on others.

It's not by accident that I chose Lakota in the above example. The concept of a heritage language is of utmost importance for people who are losing their language. For native peoples of the Americas (I'm choosing North America because that's where I live and those are the languages I've studied the most), language is much more bound up in culture than for Europeans. European traditions, religions, and politics have been translated and adapted so many times that I have met very few people of European descent who identify strongly with the language they speak. While nuances are of course lost in translation, I would wager that few would say that the ideas in Machiavelli's The Prince would be lost if we lost the original Italian printing. On the other hand, there is a very strong feeling among American language speakers that losing their language means losing their culture, and means losing unique ways of looking at the world. (NB: there are other American language speakers who feel equally strongly for the opposite view.) Thus the concept of a heritage language is a very important one.

These are just musings. You may disagree with some or all of them. That's fine. One final thought: given that languages evolve, where does our "heritage language" begin and end? If English is John's heritage language, is Middle English? Old English? Proto-Indo-European?

7 comments:

Jim said...

"For native peoples of the Americas (I'm choosing North America because that's where I live and those are the languages I've studied the most), language is much more bound up in culture than for Europeans. "

You must mean Euro-Americans, because for Europeans language and culture and even landscape are intextricably tangled. The French have practically made themselves a laughingstock with their language protectivism, as a matter of cultural survival in the face of Anglophone hegemony (couldn't happen to more deserving people). For years there were Breton kids who had no legal existence because the government would not register their births without French first names off the approved list, and their parents refused to give them names off the approved list.

The same kind of thing has played out over and over in eastern Europe, not just in what language politics in general but especially in toponyms as a mark of land claims.

The Irish and Welsh and Basques certainly feel that language and culture are damn near synonymous.

linguistlessons said...

I didn't mean just Euro-Americans -- while at a governmental level your example about the French is accurate, at the individual level the French people I've met don't seem to have the same kind of belief in the primacy of language as do, say, Tsuu T'ina people. However, I definitely wasn't referring to Irish, Welsh, or Basque. As minority languages, those are in a very similar situation to those in the Americas.

Jim said...

That's a valid distinction there - Irish and the others are endangered, French is not. But back in thw Hitler era Germans at all levels were pretty emphatic about German. I think it's the sense of endangerment that matters - that certainly motivated Germans of that era, majority langugae or not.

Nowadays Frisians and other Platt speakers are protective of their languages, and around Nuernberg there are efforts to teach Frankish to immigrants rather than Hochdeutsch so they fit in with the neighbors.

It really varies by culture. The Dutch just don't give a crap. The English never seem to have thought of their language as anything but a default setting for a very long time.

Mostly the big fights were in the 19th century. In an age of nationalism, every nation had to have its unique language, unique literature and music, however mediocre, etc. Finnish, though never endangered, went through a period of real jingoism.

That resulted in these bogus standard languages which have weirdly become actual L1s for people. Of course nowadays nobody is very excited one way or the other about those languages. But where the earleir varieties persist, people are quite emphatic.

Matthew said...

I used to live in Cortez Colorado. Some of my classmates were Ute. It never occurred to me to try to learn Ute until recently. I don't live there any more, never married into tribe, etc. So my "heritage" link is pretty weak or non-existent.

I've been mulling what to do with the copy of the Ute Reference grammar on my shelf and discussing it with people.

Lots of people have various ideas implying constraints on who should study a dieing language and how. "Blood descendents of original speakers have to revive it", "We must respect every thing anyone said about language X (esp. don't write it down!)", "You should only use it for folk tales, not science fiction and soap operas" These constraints are artificial and will kill of the language because no one will be able to fulfill them, instead they just won't bother to study Ute or use Ute.

If someone wants Ute to live as a language, they should study it, even if they've never been to Colorado or Utah, have no Amerind blood and intend to mostly use the language to make fanfic translation of Harry Potter.

I have full confidence in the Ute people to do what they need and want to do, including to make rational decisions about what language to speak, but I also have full confidence that by the time they think that Ute is awesome, everyone will have stopped speaking it, except some language hobbyists in New York and Moscow.

These constraints on who "should" and "shouldn't" study or speak what is an idea virus that can kill off the last pockets of a dying language.

Anyhow, I hope my comment isn't to tangential to your post.

linguistlessons said...

Well said Matthew. There are many who would disagree with your sentiment, but I'm not one of them. The tribes who are most successfully reintegrating their language into people's lives are those who are embracing the evolution of language and new technology (while still emphasizing tradition and their own unique culture). I've been seeing a lot of discussion recently about phone apps for native languages. It's great to see.

While I can see the argument that some make for the preservation of indigenous languages only for ritual and traditional practices (e.g., fishing, plant gathering) as a means of keeping the language "pure", the only way to truly preserve a language is to utilize it as a full-service medium of communication, where people (especially young people) use it to talk about everything (from traditional knowledge to upcoming movie releases to physics homework) in every medium (spoken, email, facebook, texting).

Jim said...

Matthew, exactly the same debate took place in the Gaelic Revival. since it was Ireland the debate went on and on and on and came to nothing and then finally everyone dropped it. After awhile everyone started doing whatever they wanted - poetry, sotware (there was soem guy up in the outer Hebrides who invented software terms for Scottish Gaelic out of thin air).

In the end what has made the difference was a change in attitude due to economic develiopment and prosperity.

@Ryan
I have thought more on this business of language fervor and Europe, and it occurs to me that the one very important area where there has been a lot of identification between language and culture/identity is in class dialects. All the same things are in play - anxiety about membership and continuity, a sense of being a minority always on guard (especially true for upper class varieties) and concerns about purity.

Mike Tyson said...

What a minute! I'm a language hobbyist in Moscow and I'm not studying Ute! Although I'd like to.