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”