THE BLOG

Why We Should Preserve Our Minority Languages

25/10/2016 09:49

Us British are notoriously lazy when it comes to learning languages. Only 25% of the UK adult population can hold a conversation in a foreign language and even less would consider themselves fluent. We are so lazy in fact, that we've even let some of our own indigenous languages die out completely, and we've hardly bat an eyelid.

When I grew up in Cornwall I wasn't exposed to other cultures and foreign languages. I learned French for five years and German for two, but always considered the lessons a waste of time. Without routine practice outside of the classroom it was difficult to retain any information. Looking back, dismissing foreign language classes at school is one of my biggest regrets.

Living in Sweden has given me a newfound appreciation for polyglots. While a recognise some borrowed German words every so often, learning the language has been extremely difficult, especially the grammar system. Even after four years I struggle to hold a conversation. While there's a world of difference between Swedish, French and German, had I listened at school it would have definitely made the journey easier, namely by having the confidence to make mistakes. Now that language is a massive part of my life, I have naturally developed an interest in the language of my homeland: Cornish.

Cornish was on the cuff of extinction throughout the 20th century. At one stage it was thought to have only one fluent speaker and was even registered as extinct by UNESCO (the classification was reverted in 2010). According to Stay in Cornwall, "The Cornish language was only spoken by 20 people in 2000 but this increased to 557 in 2011." During the last two decades there has been a resurgence of preservation efforts, led by a group of passionate scholars. This has led to the release of Cornish music, independent films, and books, which in turn inspired more locals to express interest in learning the language. Some Cornish speaking families are even bringing up their children to be bilingual. Now there is an estimated 3,500 native speakers. This is a monumental achievement.

Modern Cornish is slightly different to old Cornish, which is only natural considering the near-extinction. The grammar system and most of the words remain the same; however, the organization behind the revival, the Cornish Language Partnership, chose to formulate a single written form that is easier for new learners, yet still natural for native speakers. This is what's currently taught in select primary and secondary schools throughout the county.

The Internet as been a major catalyst for change. The Cornish Dictionary is constantly being updated with new developments; free downloadable books are available via major distribution channels, such as Amazon; and free online tutorial videos are regularly added to streaming sites like YouTube. The current Cornish Language Strategy states that it's goal is to not only to increase the number of speakers, but to make Cornish a commonly used community language. This will hopefully be achieved through the increased use of using Cornish in broadcast and social media, entertainment and arts, and social events.

But Cornish isn't the only indigenous language that's had a difficult time: the Isle of Mann's Manx Gaelic has only 1,800 speakers; Welsh Romani died out as a first language in the 1950s and is rapidly declining as a second language; even Polari cant slang, which was spoken by actors, fairground showmen and criminals could also be considered a dying second language.

Unfortunately minority languages often disappear when other languages begin to dominate the social, political and economic landscape. This makes the dominant language essential when accessing jobs and education. This is exactly what happened in Cornwall and other parts of Britain during the 17th century. Some people liken language loss to Darwinism, stating it's just a natural part of life. So why should minority languages like Cornish be protected?

Britain has around 17 indigenous languages (the exact figure is up for debate). Admittedly, there is little need for minority languages in modern society. They are, however, more than just a communication tool; they are conduits of heritage that help us understand our history and social development. Even in the Victorian era half of all women and over one in three men were illiterate in Britain. Languages were, therefore, the only way of preserving songs and stories over time, making them a crucial element of how we understand our ancestors, and even ourselves. In addition, growing up bilingual makes it easier to learn other languages, even if they're completely unrelated.

Minority languages are truly irreplaceable, and regardless of how functional they are in the modern world, it would be a real tragedy to let them die out completely.

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