How’s your Language Footprint?


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We Australians aren’t really much for learning languages other than English. We’re quite comfy in our dominant language, and when travelling overseas – or to areas of Australia where English isn’t the vast-majority language – many of us expect others to cater to us linguistically, not the other way around.

Via Jane Simpson’s report on Endangered Languages Week 2008 comes the idea of a “Language Footprint“. This concept is an alternative to the ideas that linguistic dominance is benign, that there is nothing individuals can do about it, and that endangered languages are doomed to die no matter what.

How does it work?

Here is an example. A speaker of English (Spanish/Russian/Chinese etc) – person A – travels to a place where a minority or endangered language is spoken. Person A interacts with person B from the local community. If this interaction takes place in A’s language, rather than B’s language, then A has placed a language footprint.

What does a big language footprint look like?

A person (and a community) assumes and insists that others understand/speak/read/write their language. The person and community do not learn to communicate in languages of others that they interact with. The person and community travel widely or spread their influence widely (eg through trade and communications).

How can I reduce my language footprint?

Learn other languages, especially less commonly spoken languages or those of places to be visited. Employ a local translator. Speed-learn a language while you fly. Support other languages by buying books in them. Encourage companies to do marketing and make packaging in local languages everywhere, employing local people to do the translations. Avoid products and activities that give people no choice other than to use dominant languages.

Borrowing further from the language of environmentalism, the ELP includes the idea of offsetting your language footprint:

Can I offset my language footprint?

Of course. For example, you can support increased language learning in your own country, switch holidays to places where your language is not intrusive, sponsor efforts towards language maintenance in other communities, support another person to learn a language, learn about the world’s diversity of languages, and help make others aware of the problem of language endangerment.

I don’t speak any LOTE fluently. I studied French and Latin at high school, and I spent several years studying Auslan in adulthood: enough for simple communication, but nothing complex. All I can claim in my defence is that when I have travelled, I’ve made an effort to speed-learn enough of the local language to get by without expecting locals to switch to English all of the time. The most recent example was Catalan, while on a brief jaunt in Barcelona with a friend. What made it a little simpler was deciding to order random things from menus, which also led to some interesting food adventures rather than staying within my comfort zone all of the time. On the first day, the biggest challenge was communicating that we really did want espressos, not Americano coffees. Once we had that figured out – “cafe solo”, while holding thumb and forefinger up to indicate a very short drink – it was fairly straightforward.

I’m a bit light on for effective offsetting, too, my main area of activity being the odd bit of blogging about language death.

How are you doing?

Update 16 May 2008: Further reading:

Jane Simpson: “Your language footprint – Peter K. Austin

Langguj Gel: “More language footprints

Categories: language, social justice

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37 replies

  1. I have tried to learn Italian at school and university. I am still not very good at it. I did get better at it when I was travelling there.
    I have a niggling guilt that I have never tried to seriously learn the language of my ancestors (Irish) and have thus done nothing to prevent language death. Fortunately many other Irish and diaspora people have.
    I really should speak to my son in Italian sometimes, while he is young, to get his brain working in a multi-lingual way. But I don’t. I do encourage my German friend to speak to him in German though.

  2. About the best I do is try to learn some of the local language when I travel. I do OK in French and Spanish, I could probably speed-learn mostly forgotten high school German reasonably easily, and I expect I could speed-learn Japanese easily enough for basic communication. I have to ‘fess up to utterly failing to learn Norwegian when we went there though, just relying on being able to find someone who spoke English wherever we went – even in darkest Telemark (outside the tourist season) there was always someone within shouting distance of anyone we spoke to who could speak basic English.

  3. Actually café solo is pretty universal for espresso coffee in Spain, not just Cataluña.
    Actually the Catalans are a good example of why I don’t buy the concept of language footprint (as in the article) at all. Catalan was a repressed language for forty years under Franco, but survived in large part because of the relative poverty and lack of opportunity for its speakers. Nowadays despite every encouragement from the regional government, young people speak Spanish, because it’s a more useful language for economic and social opportunity.
    The worst thing that can happen to small languages, unfortunately, is freedom of migration and prosperity.

  4. Bah. I’m ashamed of that inelegant double-use of ‘actually’. The most threatened language of all is good English.

  5. I picked up quite a bit of Arabic when I was in Egypt but it’s all disappeared since I’ve been back. Doing Arabic is on my list. As is going back to brush up my Russian which is, or used to be, OK. Um, I know Middle Egytpian (hieroglyphs) pretty well although that’s written not spoken. Am learning reading German now for study.
    All those, with hieroglyph exception, are “major world languages” I guess but if the opportunity arose I would learn any language put in front of me. I’ve thought about trying Swahili because of all the African music I listen to but really, no time.
    In real life and interaction, that discussion happens in a dominant language ie English is not always forced upon the “junior partner.” Often in Russia, say, I would be out and keen to speak Russian but all the Russians would insist on only English because this was a rare opportunity to practice their skills (for free) and some serious things (the ability to get a better job, possible emigration opportunities for instance) depended on improving. Which doesn’t get us out of the linguistic dominance thing but there are complicating factors.

  6. I must confess that in my time overseas I generally struggled to communicate and we had to use a complicated arrangement of a few words in half a dozen languages to get basic ideas moved about. Fortunately for me, the locals had much better language skills and spoke French and German with a little Italian on top of the standard Russian and Armenian.
    By the way – great choice of photo. As the proud owner of a thriving coffee blog I love to see a good pour rather than the pale, thin and decidely nasty looking shots most people seem to end up displaying.
    Grendels last blog post..Does Perth Need a Coffee Guide

  7. Ooh, I love this! (You’re shocked, I know.)
    At various points in my life, to varying degrees of seriousness, I’ve studied French, Spanish, Russian, German, Latin, and Modern Irish. I love learning languages, and I do try to speak the language when I go to a foreign country. Problem is, though I’m good with written stuff, I have a tin ear, so I speak any language other than English with a terrible accent. (I can’t sing to save my life, either. It’s all of a piece, I think.) Which has led to people in or from four different countries (France, Spain, Francophone Canada and Mexico) to tell me to quit mangling their languages and just speak English. (Okay, not all were quite so blunt. But one was, and the rest made it clear that that was their basic point.)Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  8. We’re mostly rather Euro, aren’t we? Has anyone here ever learnt any Australian languages?
    Grendel: indeed, I poked around for quite a while before finding a really good pour!

  9. At one stage, I knew enough Dutch to have a (very) simple conversation, and when I’m in the Netherlands I try to use the language whenever I am able.
    My boyfriend and I went to Japan last year, and while we intended to learn some of the language, we sort of didn’t get around to it until we got onto the aeroplane. We learned a few key phrases, and were at least able to politely ask “Do you speak English?” in Japanese. 😛 Actually, my boyfriend managed a bit more than that, as he’d managed to pick up a few phrases from anime, and had more time to study the phrasebook.
    It always astounds me how privileged we English speakers are in the world. Whenever I hear Austrlians complaining about hearing other languages spoken here (even when they’re not expected to participate in those conversations) I wonder if these people realise the extent to which other nations bend over backwards to accomodate English speakers.

  10. When in China I tried to speak a little mandarin – usually though, I’d say “ni hao!” (hello) and would get back “oh you speak Chinese!”. Weirdly though, “you speak Chinese” was said to me in English!
    Of course, then I would have to sadly shake my head, and we would go back to bargaining via the calculator, combined with a bit of “ah bah bah, booconen!”(impossible!) and the odd “boo yao” (don’t want). Seemed that being a smiley westerner with money was enough to get by. At several points my fiance and I were assessed (in English!) as “Tall Man and Happy Girl” by the locals 🙂

  11. Weirdly though, “you speak Chinese” was said to me in English!
    This reminds me of some of my attempts to speak Dutch– a number of times, I’ve addressed someone in Dutch, and they’ve just responded in English. 😛

  12. I tried to speak French pretty much exclusively when we were in Paris, though I discovered I’d forgotten most of five years of high school and a year of University study. I completely failed to find the “rude Parisians” spoken of by stereotype, which a few people have suggested may be due to the fact that I didn’t expect English.
    I’d love to learn one of the native koori languages, but I worry about the implications of even that sort of cultural appropriation – the dominant culture here in Australia has already taken (and incorporated, for the benefit of tourists) so much of the Indigenous peoples’ traditional practices. But then, wouldn’t it be better to respectfully try and help preserve the few tribes’ languages remaining than let them die altogether?

  13. The most threatened language of all is good English.

    Aagh! That is the sound of my head hitting the wall.
    I’m pretty sure my language footprint is very small, if not negative. I’m about to finish an electronic dictionary, with two other people, or the language that was spoken in Adelaide until very early last century, Kaurna, as part of a revitalisation effort. And our efforts have not gone unnoticed, as we may begin a similar project for Dharug, the language traditionally associated with the coastal area of Sydney, roughly between the harbour and Botany Bay.
    As for Wagiman though – the Australian language I speak best – my efforts seem to have stalled; no money and even less time. Australia doesn’t seem to support language revitalisation efforts yet.
    A couple of points regarding other comments, ‘Koori’ refers to Aborigines from Sydney only. If you’re in Brisbane you can say Murri, if you’re in Perth it’s Noongar (or Nyunga, traditionally). There is no indigenous term that refers to indigenous people country-wide, in fact the most appropriate term is ‘blackfella’, either as a noun, he’s a blackfella, or an adjective, Wagiman is a blackfella language.
    Also, I believe Catalan is used as the provincial administrative language in Barcelona and the surrounding region – and quite a few people speak it, as far as I know.
    Finally, supporting Australian languages doesn’t necessarily mean learning how to speak them, but supporting efforts so that the community who identify with the language(s) can be safe in the knowledge that future generations will be able to understand and speak their traditional language and thus, be able to access their culture and traditions.

  14. I have to admit to being rather thoroughly monolingual. I did a year of German in year 7, and a year of French in my first year of high school, but all I’ve retained is enough French to say “I don’t speak French. I’m Australian, I speak English. Do you speak English?” – probably with a heavy enough Strine overlay to make me unintelligible anyway. The German is long gone. I would probably be relying on the kindness of friends and strangers should I ever attempt a visit even to Europe. On the other hand, I’m something of a chronic nut for chasing the origins of words, which means I’d probably be able to guess at written text.

  15. I would like to argue the case for Esperanto as a way of reducing your language footprint.
    It is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states. Take a look at
    Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing in a dozen countries over recent years. Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo , which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. In the past year I have had guided tours of Berlin and Milan in the planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers and not impose English or French on the speaker of Breton or Slovene or Welsh.

  16. Great post. I am fortunate enough to live in a place where many endangered languages exist. They are threatened very much by our dominant culture.
    I am currently trying to learn a Youlngu Matha language in preparation for a visit into Arnhem Land, Australia. This is such an important issue as language is a first step towards forming better inter cultural relationships and allowing others to keep their own heritage.

  17. Erratum… Before you pick me up on that last comment. I am lucky to live in a place full of cultural diversity and a multitude of languages. It is unfortunate that many of them are threatened.

  18. I am personally totally sceptical about the possibilty of a future global language but a friend has sent me a Youtube video

  19. The only language I was able to speak overseas, apart from English, was ‘point, show how many with fingers, and offer money’ or the more usual ‘dance up and down on the spot looking like you need to use the loo urgently’ and found most people fluent in these languages. Now I would make more of an effort to learn the language if I was ever going to travel again (thanks for killing that dream Reserve Bank). I can still count from zero to ten in Spanish, and I think I could probably ask when the train is coming, but unfortunately I am unlikely to understand the answer.

  20. Bill Chapman: can you explain how imposing Esperanto reduces the language extinction rate and empowers speakers of indigenous and non-dominant languages to continue to speak and pass on their language and culture?

  21. Also, I believe Catalan is used as the provincial administrative language in Barcelona and the surrounding region – and quite a few people speak it, as far as I know.

    I should add that I wasn’t holding up Catalan as an example of an endangered language; I’m sorry that it reads that way. The south of Spain just happens to be the most recent place I’ve travelled to where English isn’t the dominant language. (I don’t travel much!)

  22. No need to be sorry Lauredhel, I’m sorry I misunderstood you.
    Catalan certainly *was* an endangered language in the Fascist period, but that’d be a separate topic. Tourists before the 1980s would have been inconveniencing and embarrassing (if not outright threatening) if they’d tried to speak Catalan in public.

  23. Is it just me, or does the sudden influx of Esperanto comment spam bear an uncomfortable resemblance to a rather too enthusiastic slobbery hound with the mange who just thinks he heard the word “walkies”?

  24. Tigtog, LOL!
    I’m rather pleased that someone somewhere is still eating their heart out for Esperanto.

  25. Lepping groons, you gotta love ‘em! What do you think they latched on to? Just “language”?
    There was an Esperanto-pushing article by Henriette Vanechop on OLO the other day. It included this rather precious bit of wank:

    English is an elegant language, it would be a pity to see it disintegrating into “Englishes” and being spoken badly by non-native English users. To preserve its integrity, we should protect it to prevent it going the way of the Latin language.

  26. Just to say that it’s actually Peter Austin’s report on Endangered Languages Week 2008 – I am the imperfect transmitter!

  27. I teach Japanese at a high school. It’s quite frustrating to battle against the colonial ‘Why should I learn a foreign language? All those foreigners learn English!’ Bogan attitude around here.

  28. Jangari – as I’m from around Sydney, koori is the term I tend to use most, as it’s geographically most relevant for me. (Plus, my poor memory has difficulty retaining the correct terms for Indigenous populations in other areas of Australia, so I ask forgiveness for laziness too). Thanks for the heads-up on the term “blackfella”. 🙂
    Good point, too, on the difference between supporting and learning Indigenous languages – though again, I come up against the question of how a middle-class white girl without much contact with any sort of Indigenous population or group can give any sort of practical help beyond donations of time and money, or letter-writing in support of these.

  29. Speaking as a furriner in a non-English speaking part of the world, I find the notion of a “language footprint” to be rather silly.

  30. The concept doesn’t only apply to English though.
    Seeing as you’re in Switzerland, I Have Heard that folks from the French-speaking and German-speaking cantons often don’t bother to speak Italian when they visit Ticino? There’s a language footprint right there.

  31. “Language footprint” doesn’t take into account if speaking to a waiter in a tourist area (not really an instance of language imperialism) or asking a passerby for directions in a non-touristy area in one’s native language (approaching a big footprint, not to mention being an unsatisfying exchange for both parties).
    Yes, you could see Switzerland as a case study in language footprints.
    With four official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), there are lots of opportunities for stepping on lingual feet.
    A small anecdote: the first time we moved out of Switzerland, the moving company sent a team of French speakers from Geneva and a team of German speakers from somewhere on the other side of the Rostigraben (the French-German language divide in Switzerland).
    The German speakers claimed they didn’t speak French but had some limited command of English. The French speakers claimed they didn’t speak German or English.
    So we had to act as UN referees for the two teams, translating for them and coordinating the work.
    Swiss schools teach the other Swiss national languages, so the ignorance is often feigned. The choice of spoken language in Switzerland is often sensitive. A German speaker and French speaker will often compromise on speaking English as “neutral” language.
    If the point of “language footprint” is making tourists aware that there are other languages in the world, it is useful, but not exactly a profound insight. Any tourist that doesn’t learn the minimal courtesy phrases in the lo cal language risks rude service and frustration but is not going to contribute to any cultural damage.
    If the point of “language footprint” is making locals aware different cultures in the neighborhood, then the notion is unlikely to trump local history.

  32. Thanks for posting this, Lauredhel. I wrote a long response at my own blog, but in short, while I’m very conscious of the issues, being a native English speaker in a dominant English country means my language footprint is pretty high.
    To respond to the last comment, though, actually, asking a waiter for service in your native language, presumably a dominant language like English, in an area that otherwise sees little to no use of that language (SE Asia, for instance) is exactly what is meant by linguistic imperialism.
    I would suggest, also, that while Switzerland may serve as a case study of some kind, the situation there doesn’t (no pun intended) translate well to contexts like Australia, Canada, or more recently post-colonial environments, since the injury connected to the “lingual foot-stepping” is of a different nature. It’s not that dissimilar to the Canadian experience with our two official languages, I guess, but the linguistic footprint of both English and French speaking Canadians is going to be high, since they haven’t even begun to think about, say, the impact of their language choices on Cree, Dene or Mohawk. I speak French well enough that I would use only French in a predominantly French area (surprisingly rare in most of English Canada), but I would score myself as having a very heavy footprint.

  33. Some great discussion here! I’d like to respond to a couple of comments and add some of my own.
    RE: Andrew Warinner
    I agree with Putek thatthe example of talking to a waiter in a tourist area is *exactly* language imperialism (especially in the post-colonial and third- and fourth-world contexts), and has a great influence on one’s language footprint. The waiter’s job (and economic security) depends upon their competence in a dominant language. The more locals who can do business with tourists in one (if not several) dominant languages, the more established the area becomes as a tourist destination. The more tourists who visit, the more incentive and pressure on locals to learn dominant languages, to the extent that they may only teach dominant languages to their children to ensure their economic success. This is why Peter Austin and others at ELDP recommend (speed-)learning the local language before you arrive, or not travelling to areas where your tourist dollar may have this influence.
    And I think the idea of a ‘language footprint’ is quite profound and has far greater intention to initiate change in people’s linguistic practice than merely ‘generate awareness’ – the same could be said for the ‘carbon footprint’ metaphor.
    Re: Jangari
    Koori is used as a self-referring term by Aboriginal people in most of South-East Australia. It’s used in all of Victoria, for example, as far as I’m aware. Actually, compiling all of these terms (Koori, Murri, Noongar, Bininj) and verifying their geographical range of use would be quite an interesting exercise!
    As for my own language footprint? I wonder whether it’s really as small as I would like to think. I’m a native English speaker in Australia. I speak Dutch, German, Spanish and a bit of Portuguese and French. These are all European, of course. I also document Australian indigenous languages, one in particular: Dalabon. I can speak it fairly comfortably now, but more often than not, speak Kriol or English with the Dalabon people I work with. While all the documentation activity may reduce my language footprint, speaking Kriol with Dalabon people surely undoes most of that ‘good’ work.
    For those who are interested in learning an Australian language, yet feel entirely removed from the possibility, there are a few good opportunities to do so. David mentioned learning Yolngu Matha – these are the languages from North-eastern Arnhem Land, and can be studied online through Charles Darwin University.
    Ngapartji Ngapartji is a Pitjantjatjara language-learning site, and art project.
    Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs used to offer language learning courses for languages in the centre. My grandparents learnt some Pitjantjatjara there many years ago! I’m not sure if they still do, though they are churning out dictionaries and learners’ guides!
    Diwurruwurru-jaru Aboriginal Corporation (the Katherine Aboriginal Language Centre) offers regular Kriol Language awareness courses. Kriol is an English-based creole spoken throughout the Top End and Kimberley, and has various dialects.

  34. And a further reply to Jangari:
    The West Australian Education department has recently developed a set of guidelines for referring to Aboriginal people, as part of its Aboriginal Perspectives Across the Curriculum project.
    A report on this document in the Australian states, “Along with more obvious terms to be avoided, such as “black”, “white” and “half-caste”, the document says “Aborigine” should not be used, and “Aboriginal person” used instead.”
    So, perhaps blackfella isn’t to be recommended as a cover-all term, though it is widespread as an insider term.

  35. Mm, Bulanjdjan, I noticed the WA Education dept. recommendations, and I take the point about Blackfella being more of an insider term, and that effectively, no such cover term exists that applies to all Australian indigenous people, which probably is a good thing; we don’t need more reasons to homogenise the vastly different cultural and ethnic communities.

    Actually, compiling all of these terms (Koori, Murri, Noongar, Bininj) and verifying their geographical range of use would be quite an interesting exercise!

    Sounds like yet another job for Google Earth!

  36. I think some people reading this are really getting lost in the trees, and not seeing the forest.
    The entire idea of a “footprint” is that each individual action doesn’t make any perceptible difference to the larger problem. This is a truism, not a rebuttal. The earth can’t tell whether I leave my lights burning all night, or whether I drove to the shops when I could have walked; but it does know if half or one-tenth of the people on the planet are doing those things routinely. And one single person taking one single action (learning a languge, for example), isn’t going to suddenly overturn linguistic dominance and colonialism overnight. It gets lost in the noise.
    What can make a difference is if everyone, or a large proportion of people, started paying attention and reducing their own, minuscule, imperceptible footprints. They add up. No one gives a rat’s arse that you read a phrasebook on the plane? Sure. This is obvious. If every single person on that plane and on every plane thereafter read a phrasebook, made an effort to learn about non-dominant perspectives on country and culture and language, developed a true respect for those things, voted according to anti-colonialist principles, employed interpreters rather than expecting to be catered for, made relevant donations to action groups, perhaps got involved in a little activism, and so on and so forth? This could make a difference.
    It’s a footprint; not a revolution driven by a single individual, and not a magical band-aid.


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