Professor David Crystal OBE, internationally renowned writer, lecturer, broadcaster and one of the world's foremost authorities on language, kindly took time out during his recent flying visit to Brazil to give this fascinating, thought-provoking interview, exclusively for New Routes readers.
NR: I see, David, that you live in Holyhead in Wales. Were you born and bred there and do you speak Welsh?
DC: Well, I was actually born in Northern Ireland, but from a very early age I was brought up in Holyhead in North Wales, and that is indeed a bilingual area. My family was English only, but when I went to primary school I learned Welsh along with all the other kids, so by the time I was ten or eleven I’d got quite a lot of Welsh inside me. But then the family moved to Liverpool - where Welsh wasn’t that much use! So, although I’ve kept up my Welsh and now speak it reasonably well, and certainly understand it well enough, it’s not a daily language for me.
NR: Does that have any bearing on your interest in minority languages?
DC: Oh, absolutely! I think it has a bearing on two things. First of all, you can’t help but have your intuitions shaped by developing as a child in a multi-cultural environment. Perhaps one of the reasons why I’m a linguist is because of that early awareness of language difference and language interaction. And then secondly, as an adult, having now lived back in Wales for the last 15 years or so and become very much part of the concern to revitalise and maintain the Welsh language (Welsh being one of the success stories of the 20th century, really), it does indeed give you a perspective for the situation of endangered languages all over the world.
NR: Do we actually know how many languages there are in the world and what kind of percentage distribution there is in terms of numbers of speakers?
DC: Well, we do, more or less. The surveys that have been done are relatively recent, mostly in the 1970’s, 1980’s and into the 90’s. As far as the numbers go, it all depends on what you mean by a language, as opposed to a dialect: estimates go from 5.000 to 10.000 languages in the world. The figure in my book is about 6.500 languages in the world. And the distribution is absolutely clear. The summary statistic I like to quote is that 96% of the world's languages are spoken by 4% of the people, which is really quite a dramatic statistic.
NR: You mentioned your new book, which has just been published by Cambridge University Press, called " Language Death"*. What is language death?
DC: Well, a language dies when the last person who speaks it dies. Although some people argue that it dies when the second last person who speaks it dies, because then the last person has nobody to talk to. There are something like 60 or 70 languages which have just got one speaker left, and that is a very poignant and very dramatic moment in the history of a language, it seems to me.
NR: But, so what? I mean, languages have always died off. Does it really matter? Because, you know, many of these so-called advocates of the new monoglot millennium would argue that a reduction in the number of languages is actually a benefit to mankind.
DC: Oh, yes, that’s right. That is probably the most popular view out in the wide world, that a world with one language would be a peaceful world, back to before the curse of Babel. I would say two things to people who make these arguments. First of all, the 'curse' of Babel, implying that beforehand there was only one language, is a myth. Before Babel there were already many languages (as is clear from Genesis Chapter 10), so the world was never in a one-language community. Secondly, concerning the notion that a world with one language would be a peaceful world? It takes only five minutes of thought to realise that this is absurd. We can cite some of the famous monolingual countries of the world - like Vietnam, Cambodia, or Rwanda and Burundi, or indeed why go abroad, as it were? Let's stay in traditionally monolingual Britain and say there was never a civil war there, or never a civil war in America? There are civil wars everywhere. If people want to kill each other they'll do so regardless of the number of languages they speak.
NR: So why do languages die, then?
DC: Languages die for a mixture of reasons. Three reasons, basically. One is physical damage to people. Disease, very largely. In the history of colonisation, smallpox, these days AIDS, of course, devastating the world, reducing communities and therefore languages. In some parts of the world, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other tragedies.
The second reason is that there is active antipathy to individual languages and therefore cultures, in some parts of the world. Perhaps the other way round - antipathy to individual cultures and therefore languages. Ethnic rivalry in Africa is the classic case.
And then thirdly, the biggest reason of all, is globalisation and the assimilation of one culture within a more dominant culture. This is where one cites the rise of the global languages like English, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic, and the way in which minority languages and cultures have been crushed when they find themselves in the path of the 'steamroller' of those languages.
NR: Which would be true of Brazil if we go back to 1500 and look at the number of indigenous languages spoken then as compared to today.
DC: It most certainly would! A dramatic decline in the Indian languages of Brazil over the last 400 years or so, from around 1.175 to less than 200. And the scale of reduction is very similar in North America, of course, and in Australia. An important point to note, however, is that English is not the only steamroller. There is a tendency to think that, as English has become a global language, English is the only force that is crushing the languages of the world. But as the South American example shows, where English has never been the steamroller, Spanish and Portuguese have been the steamrollers. That is the story of language endangerment. The dominant language can be any language. Russian has extinguished many languages, Chinese has, Arabic has, and so on.
NR: When talking about endangered languages would you also include such aspects as dialects and regional accents?
DC: Oh, yes, I would indeed! There are endangered dialects as well as endangered languages. In Britain, for example, where local dialects are every few dozen miles, many people are proud of the dialect of their own region. The Yorkshire Dialect Society, for example, has existed for over 100 years. The fact that a dialect might be endangered by the standard language of the community is in its own way just as important an issue in terms of identity and emotion as the fact that a language might be dying out somewhere.
NR: Okay. So what can be done, then? Where do we begin? What are some of the key issues we should be concerned about to "save", as it were, endangered languages?
DC: Well, for many languages it is too late, nothing could be done to save them. On the other hand, every language is a unique vision of the world. The world is a mosaic of visions, and each language captures something of the way a certain human community has come to perceive the world. Therefore the fact that 40% of the languages of the world have never been written down means that there is a great potential loss of insight looming over us all. That is why it is so important, in the case of those languages that are about to die out, to have as much of them recorded as possible for posterity, for us to get a sense of what it meant for them to be human. So there is an academic job to be done, by linguists, even in the cases where the languages are going to die anyway.
In the cases where the languages are "saveable", and many of them are, salvation is possible only if three factors are present. First of all, there has to be a willingness on the part of the people themselves to save their language. Now, interestingly, many cultures in the world whose languages are under threat are not interested. They don't care. Their interest is in the new language, which is the 'cool' language, the language that's giving them jobs, a better quality of life. We have to respect that attitude, but we don't have to leave it unchallenged. It is possible to remove the linguistic apathy in a community. You can go in and point out the issues that are involved in language maintenance, discuss with the people the way future generations will regret the language's passing, and so on. But none of this will succeed, of course, if the circumstances aren't right. If you've got a community where the priority is to survive as a human being, to get rid of hunger, to get rid of disease, there's no point going in and saying, "We must save your language". You've got to save the people first. I call this the 'bottom up' factor.
The second thing that has to be present is a 'top down' factor. No language will survive unless there is sympathy from on high - I mean national government in terms of the constitution, offering safeguards to the community, local government interest, school structures, and so on and so forth.
And the third thing there has to be, to preserve a language, is expertise. There have to be people who can analyse the language, get the grammars written, the dictionaries written, the stories recorded, the life of the language put down on paper and on tape, so that it can be taught. This means there have to be teachers, good teachers, teacher training, and materials provided by publishers. That's quite a costly business. I estimate that it probably costs about US$ 200,000 per language to get the foundation of a language established so that it can be the basis of a maintenance programme of some kind. Which sounds like a lot of money, but if you multiply it by 3,000 languages which are in danger, it is still less than a billion dollars - and a billion dollars is less than one day's profit from OPEC oil revenues or probably half an hour of Bill Gates’ earnings! But it's because language survival needs money that organisations like The Foundation for Endangered Languages** have been set up.
NR: Am I right in saying that all royalties from the sale of Language Death* will be donated to this Foundation?
DC: Oh, yes! I think the royalties should go there because, you know, some of the local communities are quite right when they say, " We've been exploited. People have made money out of us". And I am not in the business of making money out of endangered languages.
NR: In what ways might electronic technology and the media and things like the Internet benefit endangered languages?
DC: Immensely! If you are the speaker of an endangered language and you want to get your plight before the world, until ten years ago you were in hopeless situation. You'd get a newspaper article, if you were lucky, but a radio show would be absolutely out of the question, and as for television - no chance! Now, with the Internet, for the cost of a phone call you can have your language in front of the world in no time.
NR: But then many parts of the world where these languages are most seriously endangered don't even have electricity!
DC: That's right, and so there is no chance there yet. But there are somewhere between 500 and 1.000 languages already on the Net now, and many of these are minority language groups. They are seeing the potential of the Internet to make their case and make their presence known around the world.
NR: DISAL´s New Routes comes out every three months. Just to kind of illustrate the unprecedented rate at which languages are dying, how many languages do you estimate will have died out between one issue of New Routes and the next?
DC: Well, we can work it out. People estimate that something like half the languages of the world are going to die out in the next 100 years. That's 3,000 languages in 100 years and that means on average one language is dying out every two weeks. In the three months between one issue of your magazine and the next, six will have gone. Two each month, on average! Not many people know that!
NR: That's quite a startling figure! Just to finish off, David, perhaps New Routes can help in a very small way. I was just wondering if you could please teach our tens of thousands of readers a bit of Welsh.
DC: A bit of Welsh? What are the most important things you need to know?
BORE DA - good morning ("morning good" - adjectives go after the nouns in Welsh)
IECHYD DA - good health. Very important when you're having a drink! Iechyd - health, da - good.
DIOLCH YN FAWR - "thanks greatly", as it were, thank you very much.
A very lively language, Welsh! Spoken by 580,000 people, more or less, a quarter of the Welsh population.
NR: Okay, David, DIOLCH YN FAWR ! Thank you very much!
DC: CROESO! You´re welcome!
Editor’s special note
David and I stopped here for a short break and then continued the interview to discuss crucial issues such as English as a global language, the future of Englishes, and the implications for classroom teachers. The text of the second part of this exclusive interview will be published in the next edition of New Routes.
** Some relevant organizations The Endangered Language Fund. Inc. c/o Doug Whalen, Department of Linguistics, Yale University, New Haven - CT 06520 - USA firstname.lastname@example.org
David Crystal is currently chair of the UK National Literacy Association (NLA), patron of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreing Language (IATEFL) and of the National Association of Professionals concerned with Language Impaired Children (NAPLIC). He is also a member of the English Language Committee of the English-Speaking Union and Director of the Ucheldre arts Centre in Holyhead, UK. His many published books include: English as a Global Language and the new Language Death, both published by Cambridge University Press.
The Foundation for Endangered Languages
c/o Nicholas Ostler, Batheaston Villa, 172 Bailbrook Lane,
Bath BA1 7AA - UK
Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation (CLEP) c/o Linguistic Society of America - 1325 18th Street, NW, Washington DC 20036-6501 - USA email@example.com
** Some relevant organizations
The Endangered Language Fund. Inc. c/o Doug Whalen, Department of Linguistics, Yale University, New Haven - CT 06520 - USA firstname.lastname@example.org
Professor David Crystal OBE, internationally renowned writer, lecturer, broadcaster and one of the world's foremost authorities on language, kindly took time out during his recent visit to Brazil to give an exclusive interview for New Routes readers. The first part of this interview was published in the previous issue, New Routes # 12. As promised at the end of the first part we are now proudly offering the continuation of this fascinating, insightful interview.
NR: English is nowadays referred to as a 'Global Language'. Do we actually know how many people speak English in the world and how this breaks down in terms of the different kinds of speakers there are?
DC: Well, all statistics about language use are a bit vague. Most countries don't keep censuses, but the received wisdom is that first language English speakers around the world total something like 400 million - mainly in the United States, but also in Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean and a few other countries.
Then we must add second language speakers - in about 60 countries like Ghana, Nigeria, India, and Singapore, where the language has a special status. Again, nobody's very clear, but a conservative estimate would be perhaps another 400 million or so speakers there.
And then the amazing world of English as a foreign language, the other 120 countries in the world where English has no special status, and where really nobody knows how many people are learning English or have learned it sufficiently well to count as an English speaker. An estimate that the British Council uses is that a billion people are in the process of learning English this year. If we assume that two thirds of these are sufficiently competent to be counted as speakers of English - say, 6-700 million - then we can add this total to the other two, which makes about 1.5 billion people speaking English world-wide, a quarter of the world's population.
NR: And yet there are no apparent intrinsic properties of the English Language which would actually entice anyone to choose it as a world language, are there? So why has English become so widespread?
DC: All languages develop for one reason only - the power of the people who speak them. This has always been the case - with classical Greek and Latin, for example - the Empires of the world have always carried their languages with them. It was the same with English. The first type of power was the political/military power of the British Empire. Then came the Industrial Revolution with its technological and scientific power - so many of the inventors of the world worked at the time in the English language. And then in the 19th century there was economic power, especially in the United States, which meant that the centre of economic gravity of the world shifted into an English speaking country, one whose population was growing so much that it quickly became the dominant country as far as English language use was concerned.
And then in the 20th century, of course, we have the amazing range of cultural developments, everything from radio and television and cinema at one end of the century to things like air traffic control and computer developments and the Internet at the other. And all originating in or facilitated by English-speaking countries. So a combination of all these things produced the remarkable effect of a language that is spoken by more people than any other has been since recorded history began.
NR: Do other power sources exist that are likely to overthrow English as a global language in the future, or do you think English is now in an unassailable position?
DC: Well, my view is that English is in an unassailable position. I think the snowball has got so big as it rolls down the hill, picking up speakers all the time, that it is unstoppable. So many people speak English in so many countries now that I can't see English being seriously challenged in the near future. But not everybody believes that, and many people think that, power politics being the way they are, it would only take a relatively small shift in power relations to mean that certain other parts of the world might suddenly grow in prestige and economic power, thereby attracting people to their languages. The futurologists suggest that the Pacific Rim countries are going to be significantly greater in effect in the next century, as indeed are the countries of Latin America. In which case, suddenly languages like Chinese or Japanese or Spanish and Portuguese could suddenly become much more desirable as language learning entities, and English might become conceivably less so. As I say, I myself don't think that's likely, but certainly some people do.
NR: We have talked so far about English, but you often refer to Englishes in the plural. What exactly do you mean by this?
DC: By 'Englishes' I mean the new regionally located varieties of English that can be found around parts of the world where English has been adopted and then adapted by the local communities to suit their needs. The origins of this process are when English began to move around the world in the 16th century. Within 20 years of English arriving in America we saw the first signs of American English growing, with the distinctive vocabulary of the American Indians being introduced into English - words like moccasin and wigwam. And then as English moved to other places, Australian English developed and South African English. These are 'old Englishes', if you like. Now in the 20th century what we've seen with the growth of newly independent nations all over the world is a remarkable upsurge in distinctive Englishes in countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Singapore, India, and many other parts of the world where new dialects of English are growing very very rapidly - even to the extent of having tens of thousands of new words in English that are not known outside those individual countries.
NR: Like 'Brazilian English', words which are used as English words in an English sentence without being translated?
DC: Well, one interesting thing is that even the English as a foreign language countries are beginning to develop their own kinds of English. Any newcomer to Brazil immediately sees a whole range of vocabulary that they need to have translated. You only need to look a menu and you encounter words like 'feijoada'. Think of all the samba vocabulary. These situations produce loan words for English - how many I don't know, but there must be hundreds already.
NR: Is the English language then going to fragment into mutually unintelligible variations?
DC: Well, this has always happened in the history of language. That's how families of languages have grown. That is why all the Romance languages exist now, because Latin fragmented in that way. And there is a very serious possibility that this could happen at grass roots Level with English. Indeed, there are already clear signs, as you go around the English-speaking countries of the world, of comprehension difficulties as one listens to the English language speakers on the streets, in the more colloquial forms of the language they use. Especially noticeable are the new 'mixed' languages. English might mix with Chinese or Malay or Japanese to produce a new kind of language, often called Singlish in Singapore, or Japlish in Japan, or Spanglish in a Spanish-speaking context. These are not bastardised forms of language either. They are genuine new forms of a language, completely fluent and grammatically structured, a fascinating new development. If these continue to develop, as I think they must, then we shall be in a situation indeed where at a colloquial Level the language is indeed fragmenting. But the good news, from the point of view of those who are worried about this, is that at another level, at the Level of standard written, printed English, there is a great deal of uniformity and consistency throughout the whole of the English-speaking world.
NR: I suppose technology will also play its part with things like the Internet, satellite TV, cable TV and so on.
DC: That's exactly right, for Standard English, at least. Standard English is essentially a written form of English, but if you speak Standard English aloud you get a kind of educated and rather formal sort of English. Now that is the kind of English you will most often encounter on CNN and the BBC World Service, which can now be received in virtually every country in the world. So the future of English is really going to be the story of the tension between these unifying forces, which are keeping the language together, and the street forces which are pulling the language apart.
NR: What are the implications of all this for classroom teachers of English?
DC: Well, classroom teachers are in a very difficult position at the moment. There has never been a time in the history of the English language where there has been so much change going on. The main periods of language change in the history of English were in the early Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. But over the last 400 years the language has been really rather stable. Now in the 20th century and in the new millennium the forces acting on English are really remarkable. So teachers are having a difficult job keeping up with what's going on. And that is the first thing. Teachers have to be aware of what's going on, linguistically, in the world as a whole. Magazines like New Routes play a very important role, it seems to me, in presenting teachers with the facts, with what is happening. You can't solve a problem until you know that a problem is there.
As far as teaching practice is concerned, myself I wouldn't have thought there was much need for teachers to change their policies, their syllabuses, their curricula, for the immediate future. If teachers have always taught British English, Received Pronunciation, for example, there is no reason for them to stop doing so. If they teach General American, they will carry on doing so. The materials are there, they know how to teach those varieties, the examination system is ready for them in those varieties, and most of the books and articles they read will be in and about those varieties.
But as far as listening comprehension is concerned, I think there is a real need for teachers to take on board as quickly as possible the message of English as a global language, which is that English is now going to be encountered by their students in an enormous range of varieties. If students go out into the world thinking that the only kind of English that exists is British English, Received Pronunciation, they have got an awful shock coming to them! And therefore teachers can do a grand job finding materials of all kinds, illustrating South African English, Australian English, Ghanaian English, and all the others. The more teachers can expose students to these varieties, the better. So for production, I don't think there is a need for much change, at present; whereas for listening comprehension, I hope for a great deal of change.
NR: Should we, as teachers of English, be optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
DC: Well, I don't think there's any point being either. I think you have to be realistic - and the realism of the present situation is that nobody owns English any more. Too many people speak it for it to belong to any one country. English is beyond control. It is being used by people who are using it, adapting it, doing things with it like never before. And therefore the teacher must keep feet firmly on the floor. 'Stay cool' is the main message. Remember that everybody's in the same boat, all over the world. We need to introduce our students gradually, by degrees, to this experience of world English, while nonetheless giving them the firm anchor of one variety of English - British, or American, or whatever you want it to be. Don't panic, is the main message for the new millennium!
David Crystal is currently chair of the UK National Literacy Association (NLA), patron of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) and of the National Association of Professionals concerned with Language Impaired Children (NAPLIC). He is also a member of the English Language Committee of the English-Speaking Union and Director of the Ucheldre Arts Centre in Holyhead, UK. His many published books include: English as a Global Language* and the new Language Death*, both published by Cambridge University Press.