As it is
Language policy, planning, and practiceCulture and language are intricately associated with humans so they change due to human actions. As cultures shift, languages also change.
Bhupa P Dhamala
If the natural world is full of biodiversity, the human world is full of cultural diversity. But for many reasons, there is no coherence between natural and cultural diversity. While natural diversity occurs basically as part of natural phenomena, cultural diversity can be maintained or disrupted largely by human actions.
Culture and language are associated with humans so they change due to human actions. As cultures shift, languages also significantly change. As a consequence, social equilibrium is disrupted. This creates a new situation which requires urgent consideration. In this brief write-up I seek to open up new avenues for discussions on language policy, planning, and practices.
Political, economic, and cultural forces lead to the origin, development, and extinction of languages all over the world. In recent times many voices are vanishing; several languages are dying out. It is estimated that one language dies every 14 days. Daniel Nettle (2002) says the number of hitherto extinct languages can be more than 7,000. Washington Post, Apr 23, 2015 reports, "Alliance for Linguistic Diversity Unesco is predicting that half of all languages will be gone by the end of this century". There are approximately 6,000 languages in existence now. The number was greater not so long ago. If this trend continues, at least half of the world's languages may die out in the next century.
There is no denying that linguistic diversity in society is as essential as biodiversity in nature. David Crystal (2000) says, "To say that a language is dead is like saying that a person is dead." But unfortunately this diversity is being disrupted because of the reduction in the number of languages. It seems that linguistic diversity that previously prevailed no longer exists. If linguistic diversity does not exist, cultural diversity does not exist either. This situation ultimately affects biodiversity which threatens life on earth and possibly disturbs the equilibrium of the entire universe.
Where are we heading?
There are various reasons for disturbance in the equilibrium of linguistic diversity. Apart from the natural phenomenon, human action is the main cause of disequilibrium. Spontaneous or deliberate monolingual practice in society causes reduction in the number of languages being used. But very often monolingual policy adopted by a nation or group of nations has triggered this situation.
Since all languages have their intrinsic power to shape the way people think, they can be used to inculcate certain ideologies into the minds of people. Those ideologies can be embedded into a certain form of language so we cannot ignore the power of language. It is one thing that language has the power to shape human thought but it is another if one language dominates other languages and becomes dominant. One language can gain more power than others because its users are more powerful. So the power structure of the world determines the linguistic hierarchy to a large extent. English, for instance, has become a global language today. Reasons for this are many: colonialism with military intervention, new economic world order, cultural shift, education, technological revolution, etc are important factors for its unstopped growth.
It is thus hard to tell where we are heading. Are we adopting monolingualism or multilingualism? Or are we experiencing linguistic homogeneity or linguistic diversity? It looks like that we are heading towards monolingual practices that in turn leads to linguistic imperialism. In one sense, language has its empire because we cannot do without language. In another sense, one language causes linguistic imperialism if it becomes dominant over the others. At present, if this monolingual practice continues, it seems that Englishism will rein the world for a long period of time.
Conversely, we can also fairly argue, albeit without conclusive evidence, that there is likely to be a major shake-up of the global language hierarchy in the 21st century. There are signs that the hitherto existing power centres are quickly shifting. So German, French, Russian, and Spanish languages in Europe cannot be replaced by the use of English alone. Chinese and Hindi in Asia are the languages used by nearly one-third of the world’s population. Since migration of population is making the world more multicultural, multilingualism cannot be denied.
Two opposing predictions can be done about the future of languages in the new millennium, therefore. As Douglas Kibbee says: 'free market' theory of unfettered capitalism that leads to the evolution of some languages imposed initially by the people of power based on the Darwinian principles of natural selection and Spenserian theory of social selection will be in force on the one hand, and on the other, the state itself will formulate and adopt the policy of intervention as an ecological approach to conserve the endangered languages to maintain linguistic diversity.
Often there is the combination of the two, with the second masquerading as the first. In Indonesia, Javanese is the national language, as it is spoken by over half of the population while hundreds of other languages are also spoken simultaneously. So is the case in India with the use of Hindi as the national language. But America, Sweden, and Portugal have de facto monolingual practices as more than 80 percent other languages are used. Belgium, Sri Lanka and Canada have official bilingual policies, but they tend to be multilingual in practice. This indicates that monolingualism cannot be the absolute policy in any nation state.Also, there have been violent riots about particular language policy in several countries including India. State alone cannot enforce a policy of particular language use. So de jure policy alone may not work. To put it in a nutshell, the matter of language use is largely natural/spontaneous but it can also be regulated by legislation. Governments of nations should consider this case as urgent. This makes me wonder what language policy can be adopted in Nepal in these conflicting situations.