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"Language Death" by David Crystal ISBN 0-521-65321-5 (hardback)
published by Cambridge University Press, 2000
198 pp

"All language professionals have suffered the consequences of a general malaise about language study which has long been present among the general public - an inevitable consequence of two centuries of language teaching in which prescriptivism and purism produced a mentality suspicious of diversity, variation, and change, and a terminology whose Latinate origins crushed the spontaneous interest in language of most of those who came into contact with it."

There, that’s got your attention, hasn’t it? But no, this is not the start of another rant about grammar, it’s a quotation from a recent book by linguist and prolific author David Crystal about something altogether more serious, the fact that the world’s stock of languages is currently dwindling at a terrifying rate - "a linguistic crisis of unprecedented scale" as the author puts it in his Preface. To give you a hint as to what he means, let’s try a little quiz. (The answers are at the end.)

1. How many languages are there on our planet?
2. What is the average number of speakers of each of those?
3. How many people are the most used 4% of the world’s languages spoken by?
4. How many indigenous languages are there in Africa?
5. How many of them are used as a medium of secondary education?

The structure of the book is straightforward. It is organised into five chapters. Each of them begins by posing a question - What is language death? Why should we care? Why do languages die? Where do we begin? What can be done? - and then tries to answer it. It lies beyond the scope of a review like this to summarise the arguments Crystal marshals in his endeavours to provide those answers, but I was impressed. What impressed me?

First, the book is a work of real scholarship. Throughout it, Crystal avoids simplistic notions and instead tries to address the issues he is considering in their full complexity and as fairly and from as many angles as possible. Examples are drawn from all over the world; opening the book at a random pair of pages I find mentioned three indigenous Peruvian languages, Maya, Aztec, Gikuyu from East Africa, Ainu from Japan, Welsh, and Alaskan Tlingit (pp 84-5). General points are illustrated by pertinent examples and an array of statistics and sources is deployed in support of the arguments the author presents. Pithy quotes are here in abundance, too, and even the footnotes were at times a delight - one that caught my eye managed to bring together Umberto Eco, the Holy Bible, and the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy within the space of eleven lines!

Second, the way he organises his often complex arguments and the language he uses in order to present them are very reader-friendly. No one could deny that David Crystal has a real passion for what he is writing about and an enviable way with words that helps him to put his message across: "There is no such thing as a primitive language, and every language is capable of great beauty and expression. Fears and hatreds pay no attention to facts." (p 30) and "It is notable that the nations which are most monolingual in ability and attitude are those with a history of major religious or colonial expansion." (p 45) are just two of the numerous bons mots I found myself scribbling down as I went through the book.

Third, and most important perhaps, the case he makes is a telling one. "It is already too late for hundreds of languages. For the rest, the time is now." (p x) So sad, too bad, you might say, secure in your English or Czech or Polish or whatever, but what does it really matter to me? Languages, Crystal tells us in Chapter 2, are worth saving because we need diversity, because they express identity, because they are repositories of history, because they contribute to the sum of human knowledge, and because they are interesting in themselves. "As each language dies, a precious source of data is lost." (p 53)

While we as individuals cannot necessarily do much about it in our everyday lives, there are contributions we can make in our roles as teachers: encouraging respect for diversity; raising awareness among those we teach and those we work with, and; working with people’s hearts and minds - beginning with our own. As language teachers we are in the business of educating people to function better in the increasingly homogeneous and globalised world of the 21st century; one of the downsides is that the very process which makes our skills so marketable (if all too often at bargain rates) is also responsible in no small part for the linguistic crisis described in the book. Another of the hats we wear is that of the linguist, and it behooves us to know as much as we can not only about the language we teach and the mother tongues of those we teach it to but about language itself in a more general sense. This book (all the royalties from which go to the Foundation for Endangered Languages, based in Bath, England) sheds light on a desperately urgent problem in an area of knowledge without which we would all be unemployed. I recommend it to you all.

1. Hard to say, but most estimates are somewhere around 6,000 (p 2ff).
2. Believe it or not, the same again - 6,000 (p 14).
3. of the world’s population (p 14 again).
4. About 1,200 (p 83).
5. Not a single one (p 83 again).

This review first appeared on CETEFL-L on 22 June 2001

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