What happens when the ratio of native speakers in a language goes way down?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Influences in English vocabulary
Here's what happens. This is an editorial in an Indonesian paper entitled "We have the right to change English". Though I've never seen any studies on this, I assume this is what happens with a language as the proportion of native (L1) speakers goes from 100% down to the small single digits:

  • Close to 100%: the language is used almost by only L1 speakers. The language is as complex or eccentric as its speakers have chosen to make it, and others learning the language have a hard time adapting, as the L1 speakers are not used to others speaking their language and are unfamiliar with other accents. At the same time, slight changes in geography can cause the language to change and split into other languages quite easily (except in the case of a particularly strong or authoritarian government/national identity).
  • Under 80% or so (this is probably ideal for a language in my opinion): the language is used mostly by L1 speakers, and this large completely fluent population ensures that the material produced in the language is of high quality (=free of errors, with rich expression). At the same time there is a relatively large population of L2 speakers that have learned the language, and most of them having learned the language's standardized form and unfamiliar with regional dialects or languages keeps the language from splitting.
  • Finally after a lot of global promotion we get to the point where a language has only 9% L1 speakers (as English is at now), and heading towards a mere 5% in the future: Now most communication is done between L2 speakers, and the language's rules are not so strict as before. With this L1 speakers in the language have had their roles changed from guides and arbitrators in the language to an annoyance, a grammar teacher that returns one's writing full of red ink and corrections. L2 speakers begin to resent the L1 speakers' role, and begin to think of the language as their own to use or change as they see fit.
Which is the case with the editorial. Let's take a look at a few interesting parts:

This conference will perhaps prompt us to seek answers to why very few people are convinced ELT (English Language Teaching) in Indonesia is successful. Many English teachers here base their lessons around strict, unbending ideals of the language, and expect students to conform to these ideals. This can create, whether intentionally or not, a hostile atmosphere that at its heart, threatens the students' Indonesian identity.
Two points: One, a language itself is based around strict, unbending rules. I can't bring grammatical gender back to English any more than I could command my cat to march over here and shake a paw right this instant. Two, it's very interesting that any effort on the teacher's part to have the students conform to a language's rigidity is seen as hostility.
For instance, how many Indonesian English teachers find it funny when students speak English with a marked accent? I'd say far too many. Anybody would be discouraged from speaking a foreign language if all it brings is ridicule and mockery.
Really, are teachers having that much of a laugh over students' accents? Any teacher that has been around for a while doesn't find that sort of thing to be funny anymore.

Here is a very telling paragraph:
As English teachers, the language forms an inextricable part of our social and personal lives, but the extent to which it identifies us varies. It depends on our day-to-day experiences with English and our understanding of the role of the language in our future. A similar model may be applied to our students. Do not expect all of them to want to know the intricacies of English grammar, because not all of them will grow up wanting to be English teachers.
This could mean one of two things: don't expect students to know about the terms gerund, present participle, phrasal verbs etc. when learning a language, in which case I would agree, but if it is in fact saying that "a few grammatical mistakes here and there never hurt anybody" then no I don't agree, and this is another sign of L2 speakers beginning to see proper usage of a language as an annoyance.

Lastly we have the most predominant reason in the development of a new language:

The need to establish and recognize a local English -- Indonesian English or Indoglish -- is not without basis. Malaysian English and Singaporean English (Singlish) are already taken for granted, and the debate on whether certain nations or communities can claim ownership of their local version of English is considered moot because of the seemingly unstoppable rise of localized English worldwide.

However, the realization of this dream should start with our willingness to stop prioritizing the "correctness" of pronunciations and accents even when the message remains intelligible and the meaning is not lost.

I see no problem with a new language arising out of the situation with a brand new name, as was the case with Tok Pisin and Bislama. I'm wary of L2 speakers taking a language and making it their own without changing the name, however. This is one of the reasons why I oppose English as the world's second language, because this new English will end up not being the same thing at all (and yes, all languages go through changes anyway, but this would be on a completely different level). Change the name though, and I'm all for it.

I see the writer has a gmail address on the bottom, so he could probably be reached for any details on the situation in Indonesia.


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