Language Learning News - January 2008

Last Eyak speaker dies

26 January 2008

Marie Smith Jones, believed to be the last native speaker of the Eyak language, has died in Alaska aged 89.

Eyak, spoken in the area of Cordova on the Gulf of Alaska, is a language belonging to the Na-dené family of languages, which includes Tlingit, also spoken in the region, and Navajo. Linguists believe that it began to develop as a separate language about 3,500 years ago.

The Eyak were always a relatively small group who traded and intermarried with members of other language groups, in particular the Tlingit, leading to a decrease in the native speaking population. By the 1880s only about 200 remained – a number which decreased even further over the next fifty years due to smallpox and influenza epidemics. A further blow to the language came with the US government’s policy of allowing only English in schools and discouraging the use of native languages in public or even at home.

Since the 1990s Jones had been an active campaigner for the rights of native peoples. As well as speaking twice at the United Nations, on peace and the importance of indigenous languages, she had also been working with Michael Krauss, a linguist and professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Krauss, who was director of the university’s
Alaska Native Language Center up to his retirement in 2000, had collaborated with Jones to write an Eyak dictionary and grammar, as well as recording various Eyak tales.

Krauss is one of a number of linguists who believe that up to half of the world's languages will no longer exist by 2100. Currently over 300 languages are "nearly extinct", meaning that parents no longer teach them to their children, and 60 percent of the roughly 6,500 languages existing have less than 10,000 speakers.


The Daily Telegraph
Insight Guide Alaska
Eyak Language - Wikipedia
Too late ... The New York Times
Krauss, M. (1992). The world's languages in crisis. Language, 68, 6-10.

Language is Power

20 January 2008

When it comes to language learning, the personal is also political. You may think you are learning a language for reasons of your own, but governments also have vested interests in promoting the language of their own countries.

Two articles from the BBC this month point this out only too clearly. The first Mandarin learning soars outside China points to a dramatic rise in the number of people who have taken up Mandarin in the last five years – there are now estimated to be some 30 million learners of the language, and the number of students in UK universities and colleges has doubled during the period.

The fact that the increase is happening now points clearly to the fact that language learning choices are frequently inspired by economic motivation. Parents who are encouraging their children to take Mandarin as a school subject undoubtedly have their eye firmly on their career prospects, not simply on their general cultural development.

And the economic and political implications of language dominance aren’t lost on the Chinese government either, which since 2004 has started setting up “Confucius Institutes” along the lines of the Institut Français, British Council or Goethe Institut, as well as sending 400 teachers to Africa.

So could Mandarin take over as the global language of business and intercultural communication? The British Government is fighting back. The second article reports that Gordon Brown last week announced plans to open an English language learning website, which will offer self-access materials and VOIP tutorials, and aims to reach 2 billion people by 2020. And, not purely by co-incidence I suspect, it is to be directed initially at China.

At the same time, the British government will also be focusing on the other emerging economic giant, India, where 750,000 teachers will be trained over a period of five years.

What's on the BBC this month?

3 January 2008

If you're in Britain, don't forget that the BBC regularly transmits language courses during the night (on BBC2), which can be videoed and then used later. The complete course often last three to four hours, so make sure your cassette is long enough and the video set to long play mode. This month there's a choice between French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. The programmes are all backed up by on-line activities on the BBC website. Click on the links for more information.

Ma France: 08 Jan 02:00-06:00
Talk Spanish: 15 Jan 02:00-03:30
Spain Inside Out: 15 Jan 03:30-06:00
Talk Italian: 22 Jan 02:00-03:30
Italy Inside Out: 22 Jan 03:30-06:00
Talk Portuguese: 29 Jan 02:00-03:30
Brazil Inside Out: 29 Jan 03:30-06:00

Have you seen the articles in the December edition of Language Learning News ?