Globalization and Minority Languages
February 5, 2015
This ever-growing network of shared goods and information has altered our lives for the better in many ways. But there may also be a downside as some experts see an increasing trend toward cultural and linguistic uniformity.
This is bad news for minority languages and regional dialects which must struggle to survive as more widely-spoken languages dominate trade and commerce. Telecommunications may also contribute to the dying out of minority languages since the need for standardization leaves little room for idioms spoken by small populations.
However, the future may not be all bleak. Some theorists are optimistic about the triumph of diversity in the face of globalization. The hope is that culture today is so inherently global it will be able to resist control by any one language. Translation scholar Michael Cronin believes that translation “is ideally placed to understand both the transnational movement that is globalization and the transnational movement which is anti-globalization” (Cronin, 2003). He believes that translation, far from creating a homogeneous global culture, will actually promote the diversity of cultures worldwide. As we’ll see in the case study on Balinese below, globalization and telecommunications can actually prove beneficial for minority languages.
Case Study: Balinese
Balinese, spoken by approximately one third of the 3 million inhabitants on the island of Bali in Indonesia, is considered an endangered language. The official language taught in schools and promoted by the government is Indonesian, while the thriving tourism industry in the region encourages the widespread use of English as a second language. Another factor conspiring against Balinese is its complicated system of “levels” which requires the speaker to choose their words based on the degree of formality of the situation and indicate their status either above or below the listener. This feature of the language poses a problem for use by the mass media since it would be impossible to know the status of each person receiving the message. To avoid this sticky situation, many younger speakers of Balinese also began turning to the more neutral Indonesian in their daily online communications, further weakening the endangered language.
But just when it looked as if the Balinese language would serve as a textbook example of technology stamping out linguistic diversity, help arrived from the most unlikely place, half a world away in Bethesda, Maryland. Bringing together professionals across many fields, from anthropologists, to linguists, to web designers, BASAbali, a non-profit organization, was founded with the mission to promote the Balinese language. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign and volunteers from around the world, the minority language which was on its way out is now being revived. Interactive videos and exercises in BASAbali’s many e-learning modules have been distributed free of charge to schools and community centers in areas where the language is spoken. The once endangered Balinese language shows one way in which technology and globalization can help strengthen linguistic diversity.
Translator and linguistic scholar David Bellos, in Is That a Fish in Your Ear? his 2011 book on language, translation and globalization, states that the use of English for intercultural communication will not diminish linguistic variety. “One result of the spread of English is that most of the English now spoken and written in the world comes from people who do not possess it natively, making ‘English speakers’ a minority among the users of the language” (Bellos, 2011). New dialects such as Global English and Spanglish have a diversifying effect by inserting foreign elements into even a behemoth of a major language such as English. Linguistic changes are already taking shape in immigrant communities, were members are able to integrate with the local culture while still retaining ties to their homelands, thus creating subgroups of hybrid cultures with hybrid languages. Bellos suggests that globalization poses a threat not to minority languages but to native speakers of English, who will have no reason to learn a second tongue and therefore will become “less sophisticated users of language than all others since they alone will have one language in which to think” (Bellos, 2011).