Sunday, February 23, 2020

Can a language with millions of speakers be endangered?

"Can a language with millions of speakers be endangered?" asked Maya Ravindranath and Abigail Cohn in 2014. Their sobering answer?

In terms of language endangerment then it seems there is no such thing as "too big to fail".

In this nuanced essay on language endangerment in Indonesia, the authors portray Indonesian as "a successful example of language planning and language standardization in the interest of nation building". But this has diverse implications for other local languages.

However, "the negative impact of Indonesian on local languages is not limited to the “smaller” languages in Indonesia, but is even affecting the larger languages, not generally thought to be at risk." They first demonstrate a weak correlation between number of speakers and language vitality. As they note, "considering how widely it is assumed that language size and vitality correlate this is a startling result."

They then present a case study of Javanese (drawing on the work of others as well). And conclude:

As Indonesian takes over in more and more domains of communication and intergenerational transmission of Javanese breaks down, we are led to conclude that even a language with over 80 million speakers can be at risk, a trend that has serious implications for all of the local languages of Indonesia.

And not only of Indonesia. As Ravindranath and Cohn say, "We hypothesize that this fact may be true elsewhere in the world."