Friday, December 23, 2011

Cognitive aspects of language - Language Death

Loss of language is a psycho-social process at the individual or social level whereas loss of speech is a neurological disorder. At social level the loss of a language is called language death.
In 1992 a prominent US linguist stunned the academic world by predicting that by the year 2100, 90% of the world's languages would have ceased to exist.
In linguistics, language death or language extinction is a process that affects communities speaking a given language. The level of linguistic abilities that speakers possess of a given language is decreased; eventually resulting in no speakers of that language exists. Language death may affect any language including dialects.
Language death should not be confused with language attrition (also called language loss) which describes the loss of proficiency in a language at the individual level.
Types of language death
Language death may manifest itself in one of the following ways:
  1. 1.    Gradual language death
  2. 2.    Bottom-to-top language death: a language begins to change in a low level of the society such as the home.
  3. 3.    Top-to-bottom language death: a language begins to change in a high level of the society such as the government.
  4. 4.   Linguicide (also known as sudden language death, language death by genocide, physical language death, biological language death)

The most common process leading to language death is one in which a community of speakers of one language becomes bilingual in another language, and gradually shifts allegiance to the second language until they cease to use their original language or what is called in India as mother tongue. This is a process of assimilation which may be voluntary or may be forced upon a population. Speakers of some languages, particularly regional or minority languages may decide to abandon them based on economic or utilitarian grounds, in favour of languages regarded as having greater utility or prestige. This process is gradual and can occur from either bottom-to-top or top-to-bottom.
Languages with a small, geographically isolated population of speakers can also die when their speakers are wiped out by genocide, disease, or natural disaster.
Moribund state of language
A language is often declared to be dead even before the last native speaker of the language has died. If there are only a few elderly speakers of a language remaining, and they no longer use that language for communication, then the language is dead in effect. A language that has reached such a reduced stage of use is generally considered moribund.

Globalization, development, and language extinction

Elizabeth Malone of the National Science Foundation USA says: “As "globalization" increases, so does the loss of human languages. People find it easier to conduct business and communicate with those outside their own culture if they speak more widely used languages like Chinese, Hindi, English, Spanish or Russian. Children are not being educated in languages spoken by a limited number of people. As fewer people use local languages, they gradually die out.
At least 3,000 of the world’s 6,000-7,000 languages (about 50 percent) are about to be lost. Why should we care? Here are some reasons.
·       The enormous variety of these languages represents a vast, largely unmapped terrain on which linguists, cognitive scientists and philosophers can chart the full capabilities—and limits—of the human mind.
·       Each endangered language embodies unique local knowledge of the cultures and natural systems in the region in which it is spoken.
These languages are among our few sources of evidence for understanding human history.”
Those who primarily speak one of the world’s major languages may find it hard to understand what losing one’s language can mean. Some may even feel that the world would be better off if everyone spoke the same language. In fact, the requirement to speak one language is often associated with violence. Repressive governments forbid certain languages and cultural customs as a form of control.

As economic and cultural globalization and development continue to push forward, growing numbers of languages will become endangered and eventually, extinct. With increasing economic integration on national and regional scales, people find it easier to communicate and conduct business in the dominant languages of world commerce: English, Chinese, and Spanish.
The study of endangered languages also has implications for cognitive science because languages help illuminate how the brain functions and how we learn. “We want to know what the diversity of languages tells us about the ways the brain stores and communicates experience,” says peg Barrett, NSF division director for behavioral and cognitive sciences.
Dead Languages and Normal Language Change

Linguists distinguish between language "death" and the process where a language becomes a "dead language" through normal language change, a linguistic phenomenon analogous to pseudo-extinction. This happens when a language in the course of its normal development gradually morphs into something that is then recognized as a separate, different language, leaving the old form with no native speakers. Thus, for example, Old English may be regarded as a "dead language", with no native speakers, although it has never "died" but instead simply changed and developed into Middle English, Early Modern English and Modern English. The process of language change may also involve the splitting up of a language into a family of several daughter languages, leaving the common parent language "dead". This has happened to Latin, which (through Vulgar Latin) eventually developed into the Romance languages. Such a process is normally not described as "language death", because it involves an unbroken chain of normal transmission of the language from one generation to the next, with only minute changes at every single point in the chain.
Language attrition
Language attrition is the loss of a first or second language or a portion of that language by individuals. Speakers who routinely use more than one language may not use either of their languages. The mental lexicon of the unused language is erased from the long term memory store and the individual loses that language.
Emotional problems
The loss of a native language is often experienced as something profoundly moving, disturbing or shocking, both by those who experience it and by those who witness it in others: “To lose your own language was like forgetting your mother, and as sad, in a way”, because it is “like losing part of one’s soul” is how Alexander McCall Smith puts it (The Full Cupboard of Life, p. 163).
Speech Centers of Brain
Aphasia is an impairment of language ability. This class of language disorder ranges from having difficulty remembering words to being completely unable to speak, read, or write.
Aphasia disorders usually develop quickly as a result of head injury or stroke, but can develop slowly from a brain tumor, infection, or dementia, or can be a learning disability such as dysnomia or faulty memory of names.
It was thought that two areas viz. Broca’s and Wernicke’s in the brain are the main centers for speech. But researches had proved that speech is controlled by the coordinated action of wider areas in various lobes of the cerebral cortex. Therefore, the area and extent of brain damage determine the type of aphasia and its symptoms. Aphasia types include Broca's aphasia, non-fluent aphasia, motor aphasia, expressive aphasia, receptive aphasia, global aphasia and many others.
How to identify aphasia?
People with aphasia may experience any of the following behaviors due to an acquired brain defect.
  1. inability to comprehend language
  2. inability to pronounce, not due to muscle paralysis or weakness
  3. inability to speak spontaneously
  4. inability to form words
  5. inability to name objects
  6. poor enunciation or act of speaking
  7. excessive creation and use of personal new words (neologism)
  8. inability to repeat a phrase
  9. persistent repetition of phrases
  10. paraphasia (substituting letters, syllables or words)
  11. agrammatism (inability to speak in a grammatically correct fashion)
  12. dysprosody (alterations in inflexion, stress, and rhythm)
  13. incomplete sentences
  14. inability to read
  15. inability to write
  16. limited verbal output
  17. difficulty in naming

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