The Right to Struggle and a Starter’s Kit for Language Protection

Recently, I had someone say to me, “Language is dynamic. To hold on to the past is simply being stubborn.” The conversation was about the pronunciation of various loanwords in English, but it brought up a completely different topic in my mind. There are many people in the world who think that working to promote a minority language is meaningless because it’s going to die anyway or that English is more important anyway. As much as I don’t like to admit it, language death is something we, those who seek to promote language survival and general study, must readily accept as a possibility. But that doesn’t mean a language should die lying down.

Language death is indeed preventable. At least, with a great deal of effort and support. Hebrew did it and Catalan has made a significant rebound in recent years with an upsurge in local support. Even Yucatec Maya shows signs of a return to a healthier state. But most importantly, you need to be realistic and ambitious at the same time. Never ever let other people tell you that the cause isn’t worth it. Just like nothing stopped major civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, you have to be prepared to withstand anything and everything. I’m not saying I’m a pro at this or anything, but I’m fairly certain I can talk about what language advocate should aspire to do. Now, prepare for a crash course in how to start your very own campaign to protect a language!

1. Know the language. Or at least get started on it, anyway. You can’t possibly have a legitimate campaign without knowing the language. There are plenty of resources for all sorts of languages. Just look around on the internet. You should have at least a conversational command of the language to really get yourself and others moving.

2. Know your limits. And break some too. Everyone has their limitations and there are things we can’t do alone. Get your friends together to bring awareness to your work and what you want to do with. But you need to be ambitious as well. Try not to second-guess yourself about what’s right and wrong. Take risks and be willing to make mistakes.

3. Read up on other language revival efforts. It never hurts to learn from experts. Highly recommended histories to read are the revival of Hebrew, Catalan, and Basque, which all have very important lessons to be learned from.

4. Don’t restrict yourself to one place. You should be prepared to bring your advocacy anywhere and everywhere you go. A language can’t take back its place in the modern world if it doesn’t exist outside of its place of origin. People need to know about it too. The whole point is to give the language its presence in the world back. You can’t expect others to take your campaign seriously if they don’t know about it.

5. Consider other languages as well. (Two meanings to this one) a.)There is a very real possibility that the language that you choose to advocate has a “negative” history for certain people. Be considerate of other people’s feelings about it and don’t expect everyone to be your biggest fan or supporter. Don’t give people a reason (even if it’s not a rational or fair one) to hate on the language. For example, you’re obviously not going to advocate Welsh in certain parts of Britain, especially pro-English areas, because Welsh was formerly (and to some extent still is) associated with rebellion and public dissent. b.) If you’re really stuck on what language to promote, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to promote a language like Spanish. The United States does have a very large Spanish-speaking population, but advocacy for Spanish is different. It encourages people to reach out to a different demographic that has a very strong political presence in the country, and you might promote it because you feel that it is unfairly repressed or discouraged as an object of study.

6. Get other people involved. Like I’ve said at least a thousand times in other posts, language is a social experience. Encourage your friends to advocate the language with you. Find native speakers or people who come from that background. Obviously be polite about it, and explain that it’s for a good cause.

7. Finally: never get down yourself when you’re not making progress. Remember, bringing awareness to a language is hard work. It is very important you feel motivated, even when you’re aware that there is a chance that you will fail. But that’s a part of being an advocate. The failure of a language to survive brings awareness to it in death, in much the same way that when a person dies, people think about them much more once they’ve passed on. People don’t treasure what they have until it’s gone. But obviously, you should be trying to keep the language alive anyway!

And to the speakers of minority languages everywhere: Remember, it is your right to struggle. The right to your ethnic or linguistic background is as much a human and natural right as the freedoms of speech, expression, or religion, or anything else. To Americans (and hopefully the rest of the world), this should resonate. Our country is founded on the pursuit of happiness and treasuring of personal freedom to be who we want to be. Never let anyone tell you any different. Even if you die trying, the world will know you and the cause you fight for.

This was a bit of a more empowerment and encouragement piece, even though I haven’t written anything recently. Please remember to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

Masculine, Feminine, What’s the Point? Or So You Think.

Grammatical gender is a fairly common concept in many Romance languages, as well as several Indo-European and many Slavic languages. It distinguishes nouns and adjectives (and occasionally verb conjugations) by classifying them as being of a certain gender. Grammatical gender is also referred to as noun class. However, as many Spanish, French, and other Romance language learners are painfully aware, the gender of a noun often has nothing to do with its biological gender, or any, “masculine,” or, “feminine,” qualities that it may possess. Further, it may not even be a, “gender,” in the biological sense. For example, you have German and Romanian, which both have neuter gender. Neuter is not a gender you assign to people at birth. In Basque, words are classified as animate or inanimate, which, admittedly, has much more logic to it than the male-female systems of Spanish, French, and other such languages.

However, there are people who have issues with the idea of a gendered grammar system. There is a feminist argument for the gender-neutralization of Spanish, and I’m sure of other Romance languages. Teresa Meana Suárez argues that there is an inherent sexism in the Spanish language. She indicates that most professions are, by default, masculine. When you indicate a group of people in plural, and said group is mixed, the default is the masculine plural form. Some time ago, any time that you were referring to the generic form of a word that has different forms based on gender, you used the masculine form as the generic. Now, both the masculine and feminine forms are given. Now, I personally think that languages would be greatly simplified if we made things gender-neutral, but I realize that this is impractical as a quick fix. Within common sense, it is not at all practical to try and force people to adopt a rule for the way they speak. If you made Spanish gender-neutral, you would be changing most of the language.

While I certainly agree that Suárez makes some valid points, there is a question I have. This is not meant to poke holes in her logic, but rather an abstract question: What if the grammatical genders of nouns were not designated specifically as male and female? What if they were just Class A and Class B? What if they weren’t even genders, just classes of nouns? This is not an absolute claim I’m trying to make; what the gender is called, or whether it’s even called, “gender” is something important to address. Take Basque: the argument that Suárez makes doesn’t apply, because the, “genders,” are designated animate and inanimate. I don’t know why the categories of nouns and adjectives are supposed to be, “masculine,” and, “feminine.” As I said before, excluding words for professions, family members, and other such words, there is little logic as to why a word is masculine or feminine. But then again, the language I use most often, English, is a gender-neutral language, for the most part, so I may be biased in any claims that I make here.

Others who take issues with grammatical gender do so with respect to practical usage. is Tom Scott, in his video on gender-neutral pronouns, mentions that he finds grammatical gender useless. He calls it, “clunky,” because in things such as job advertisements, you have to make it clear that you’re looking for a male or female who does the job, or both. However, it goes both ways: English cannot specify gender as easily, and for professions such as, “babysitter,” you have to specify if you specifically want a male or female babysitter, by adding the words, “male,” or, “female.”

Scott also mentions that it influences the way people think. His example shows the differences between the German der Schlüssel and Spanish la llave, which are masculine and feminine, respectively. They both mean, “key,” but when speakers of each language were asked to describe a key, German speakers apparently used, “hard, heavy,” and, “jagged”. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, used, “golden, intricate,” and, “little”. Ordinarily, you’d think that this particular example is not all that terrible. However, for words that describe people, such as those for professions and such, it can be somewhat… sexist. In one of the few gendered examples in English, the word, “seamstress,” in its original meaning (a woman who weaves clothes) is feminine. But then, what if a man weaves clothes? The word, “seamster,” is not a word. There is a subtle implication here, that weaving is a woman’s work. Because of this, people conscious of such considerations typically opt for the gender-neutral, “weaver.”

Despite these arguments against gendered systems, there is little one can do in the short term. If Spanish, French, and the other Romance languages become “de”-gendered over time, so be it. However, considering how long the gendered systems have persisted, I think that there must be a reason for it.

In the study, “Language Environment and Gender Identity Attainment,” Guiora, Beit-Hallahmi, Fried, and Yoder examined how people’s understanding of gender develops with respect to the language they speak. Languages where gender is marked greatly, such as Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, were contrasted with those where gender is not a prominent feature, such as Finnish and English. The idea is that when children are growing up, they have to learn that they have to respond differently to questions or other interactions that consider one’s own sex or the opposite sex. Therefore, whatever they think and say have to revolve around such things.

The Michigan Gender Identity Test was used to compare children’s abilities to sort people’s photographs based on gender. Being successful in this test means that the child can clearly sort things by gender, and then explain using gender. Israeli Hebrew-speaking children did very well, as 50% or more of the children from 25-42 months succeeded. On the other hand, Finnish children were not able to succeed in the same proportions until 34-36 months. English-speaking children were in the middle, as more children began to succeed from 28-42 months.

From these results, I’m thinking that gender-determinacy is important to gender identity recognition. This is obviously very important for a child to know. I can’t really think of many other reasons, but this is a very big one. Of course, in this day and age, there are people who may be biologically male or female, but identify as the opposite sex. Languages typically do not account for such circumstances, as it is probably very strange for a Hebrew speaker to address a man as he or she would a woman, because that man feels he is a woman.

In short, there is no clear reason as to why gender-determinacy exists. I’m sure there’s a good reason, given how long it’s been around, but only time will tell. If you guys have any comments on this topic, please let me know!

Works Cited

“Gender Neutral Pronouns: They’re Here, Get Used To Them.” YouTube. YouTube, 5 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

Guiora, Alexander Z., Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Risto Fried, and Cecelia Yoder. “Language Environment And Gender Identity Attainment.” Language Learning (1982): 289-304. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

“Sexism in the Spanish Language.” Revista Envío. 1 May 2002. Web. 10 Sept. 2014.

A Challenge!

As the end of the school term and beginning of summer vacation for many draws near, I’ve thought up a challenge for all of you language learners! Even if you’re just starting a language now, this is a great way to get a head-start, especially if you’re planning on taking formal classes. There are three main parts to this challenge:

Part 1: Vocabulary

You’re never going to be able to hold coherent conversations unless you have some amount of varied vocabulary. So, in this part of the challenge, you or another person will assign 5-10 new words every day for you to learn. Having another person do this for you is not only a fun social experience, but that person will also keep you on your toes to study the words. This is a pretty manageable number of words for most people to learn in a day. Make sure to change the themes of the words every two weeks! So, for weeks 1-2, you learn 70-140  words relating to food and cooking. Then, for weeks 3-4, you learn 70-140 words relating to travel. Feel free to change the themes to whatever suits you at that time!

Part 2: Speaking

You’re obviously going to need to practice speaking the language if you want to actually speak to people. This is extremely helpful if you can’t actually find someone to talk to. The solution is… talk to yourself. Try to express yourself in the language you’re learning. It doesn’t matter that no one can hear you and correct you. Eventually, when you can talk to someone, they’ll help you out with pronunciation and accent more. Native speakers obviously think in their own language, so you should too when you speak that language. So, don’t say I have to go to school, when you’re learning Korean. Say 학교에 가야 돼요 (hak-gyo-e gaya dwae-yo)!

Part 3: Reading

Find children’s books or simple literature in the target language, and try to identify the meaning of the sentences. You should definitely try to be literate in the language you’re learning, because you’ll be able to build more vocabulary that way. Obviously, this is going to be harder for languages like Catalán or Basque, but you should definitely try your best to find books. Of course, you shouldn’t expect yourself to be able to read the I Ching in Chinese right away!

So, I issue this challenge to you, and wish you the best of luck!

Speak, Speak, Speak!

Every day, I see other students who reject their cultural heritage, particularly their languages. They consciously want to relinquish this part of themselves, and this saddens me to no end. Always be grateful for the gift of language from your parents and culture, for without it, you would be less than the person you are today because of it. Whether you speak a major world language like Spanish, or a minority language like Basque, it’s important to keep that speaking tradition alive, because when a language dies, an entire generation of potential speakers influenced and molded by that language dies with it.