Because you are reading this, you are probably someone who works in the language industry and probably know how many languages Google Translate ‘speaks.’ You may also know that there are 800 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea (about 8x as many as Google Translate). You might even have heard of the Tanzanian language called Gorwaa, which is so rare that it has no dictionary, grammar, texts or writing system. But do you think these languages matter – really matter – when you make your money from translating Italian to English or English to Mandarin?
As language professionals, perhaps we should have the same reverence for the most obscure and impenetrable tongues as we do for the most commonly used, income generating ones. While globalisation has, in the view of most people, created and distributed a lot of wealth around the world and generally raised living standards, it can sometimes have more detrimental effects. One of these that tends to be overlooked is the destruction of language as the world’s population inexorably leans towards the most commonly used modes of business communication.
Think of them – English, Spanish, French, increasingly Mandarin and others – and you realise that they are every bit as much a lubricant of world trade as are shipping lanes and commercial cargo flights. But in the same way that globalisation brought JIT manufacturing and (more or less) standardised weights and measures, you can easily see how Gorwaa will go the same way as the rods, poles, chains and perches that our great-grandparents knew and used.
The free market in languages is reducing the diversity of and, I’d argue, the beauty that exists in, the many different ways we have of communicating with our fellow human beings. Politicians can seek to preserve and, if possible, grow the use of native languages – as is the case with the Scottish Government and Gaelic. However, the resources available in our country makes something like this possible, which may not be the case for some poorer governments around the world who, nevertheless, still wish to protect their indigenous languages.
Faced between the choice of feeding the people or preserving a remote language, the choice is obvious. That’s where, in my view, we in the language industry need to step in. It’s all very well us talking and writing about these matters within our own comfort bubbles: we need to look outwards and educate those outside our industry, from the mainstream media to politicians and indeed anyone who will listen and pass the message on. Pass the message on…
Fiona Woodford, Global Connects