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zompist bboard • View topic - Linguistic Diversity

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By sheer coincidence I have a webpage on this topic. Well, two pages, but one article: . is probably more relevant.

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I think Ran makes some good points here: linguistic diversity does mean that immigrants will have trouble because of language; and bilingualism is not very stable in the modern world. Even situations that have been stable for centuries, such as Guarani/Spanish in Paraguay, may not last another century.

And Ran, perhaps conscious of being an immigrant himself, suggests that Americans who grew up speaking English may be sentimentalizing the benefits of bilingualism.

One thing to notice that there is no stopping place in Ran's argument. The Torontonian immigrants he mentions come from other major linguistic blocks: India, China, etc. So if it's bad that immigrants are disfavored by linguistic difficulty, the only solution is for the entire world to speak, not merely one of a dozen superregional languages, but one language total.

Ran, are you really free of all sentimentality on this issue? It wouldn't bother you at all for Mandarin to disappear as a spoken language, its entire 3000-year history available only in translation or to a small number of specialists?

A couple more thoughts. First, are the problems of immigrants so important that linguistic diversity must be thrown out for their benefit? I like immigration myself; I'm married to an immigrant and I'd like to be able to change countries myself if we wanted to. Immigration can greatly benefit countries. Immigrants should be treated humanely... but I don't see why their way needs to be smoothed out in every way. If I moved to another country I wouldn't object to learning a new language; and I have been in the situation of having to deal with the world in another language, while visiting family in Peru. Sure, it's hard and frustrating, but it's the price you pay for moving across cultures.

When so many of the benefits of globalism are constantly on parade before us, it seems cranky or "sentimental" to argue for diversity. But I think there are serious reasons to worry about global monoculture. The danger isn't that McDonald's and Microsoft and Disney will destroy all local food and cultural icons; the danger is that one way of doing things can get locked in, and normal human experimentation will cease.

I'm most worried about this in economic terms. Is Bush-style neoliberalism the best possible government? I have strong doubts; and yet it's becoming politically and economically impossible for any nation to choose something different. Even Europeans are under pressure to adopt the US model.

Biologically, humans have flourished because we are generalists. We adapt quickly to new environments, and our societies can adopt the features of their rivals. Uniformity, however, is a biological mistake, usually punished by devastating epidemics. It would have seemed cranky and sentimental for an Irishman in 1820 to complain about monoculture of the potato, which had multiplied the population and seemed an uproarious success. But that monoculture led to catastrophic suffering when it collapsed.

Maybe it's hard to think of what could go wrong with the loss of linguistic diversity. Perhaps the most easily imagined problem is that alien intelligences come by; now all of a sudden we need facility with translation, with thinking in different ways, and we've lost it. (A few specialists in a couple of universities will be of little help.)

Or, if it's accepted that cultural diversity is a good, then language diversity is probably the best way to help preserve it, since the modern world erases merely physical barriers.

And though I have my doubts about Whorf, I'm not willing to bet that he's entirely wrong. To whatever extent languages influence thinking, monoculture will limit thinking. And we need all the good thinking we can get.


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Always good to see some well thought out points. :)


First of all, about the immigrants issue - this is hardly limited to just immigrants. In China, there has been a recent upsurge in buzz about India. Formerly an impoverished neighbour to be pitied and condescended to and so on, India has risen overnight to become a major formidable competitor. And people have become acutely aware of India's advantages - despite starting late, India already boasts an English-speaking intelligentsia. China is facing the fate of becoming the world's manufacturing plant while India becomes the world's research center.

In the meantime, nearly all the channels on TV are airing English teaching programs. "Natural English", "crazy English", "easy English ABC", "happy English hour",... people figuring out that "dropping in" means a visit and "coming up" means what's next. And 1.3 billion people are all trying to figure this out together.

This is annoying, to say the least. So - in this globalized world, language learning isn't merely a problem confined to immigrants, it plagues entire nations, at a degree unimaginable in North America.


------


Diversity itself, of course, is important and crucial. Biological diversity, cultural diversity, diversity in methods of government, economic mechanisms, ways of thinking, all of these are important, because in a tight fix, having many choices is better than having one.

But linguistic diversity? How relevant is it exactly to the above?

Does linguistic diversity really contribute that much to cultural diversity? Dropping by at the local theatre (in China), I can choose from Charlie's Angels 2, Finding Nemo, the Matrix 2, that new Jackie Chan movie, and so on, all dubbed of course. Going to the local pirated DVD store offers an even greater of choice of Hollywood movies, some of them appearing before their debut in America. And I can do this exact same thing in Shanghai (Shanghainese-speaking), Wuhan (southwestern Mandarin), Xi'an (northwestern Mandarin), Guangzhou (Cantonese), or Fuzhou (east Min). And I do not doubt at all that you can also do this in Tehran, Santiago or Bangalore.

How exactly has lingustic diversity stopped this infusion of culture? How exactly does lingustic diversity even begin to affect, even begin to touch this infusion of culture?

------

Finally, about sentimentality: h.w. made a nice point earlier. As an ephemeral presence in the history of the universe, human beings do tend to want to grab hold of a little of that unattainable immortality. It's not like we have too much else to leave behind. And I am not immune to sentimentality either.

I just wonder, though, how much humanity must sacrifice for this idealism.

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