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The Archives of The World Languages (AWL) ~Expanding the World through Language.  Aiming for Deeper Communication among Cultures~

Director Yukiko Obata (L) and Associate Professor Hirotoshi Yagihashi (R)

Director Yukiko Obata (L)
and Associate Professor Hirotoshi Yagihashi (R)

How many people realize the majority of world languages are currently threatened with extinction?
This month's Close Up introduces The Archives of the World Languages (AWL), a specified non-profit organization (NPO). AWL is a cultural movement established in 2003 by citizens and specialists such as linguists and anthropologists, etc., its members being both interested in languages and language diversity. In addition to publicizing information through its website dealing with matters such as language-diversity loss, apprehensiveness regarding language-conformity onset and simplification, and general topics concerning languages that are spoken worldwide; the group regularly holds events such as its "AWL Forums" and "Language Salons," etc. On this occasion, we discussed language and communication topics with AWL Director Yukiko Obata, and Hirotoshi Yagihashi, who is a member of the AWL Steering Committee. Mr. Yagihashi is also an Associate Professor and faculty member of the Department of English, Faculty of Foreign Studies, Kyorin University.

Q.Please tell us what led to the establishment of AWL.

An AWL leaflet

An AWL leaflet

A.Ms. Obata: My job involves the writing of poems and texts. Furthermore, because I have experience working as a counselor of children who refuse to attend school, I have always had an interest in languages, both as an expressive form and as a tool for communication. Against this backcloth, when I heard about languages around the world that are only spoken by a single individual, and that such languages could possibly die out tomorrow, I felt very concerned. If you consider a species of animal such as a bird or a rabbit, it becomes a major issue if there is a possibility of extinction. However, concerning the disappearance of languages and cultures, we have few opportunities to learn of such developments. Considering this, in conjunction with Professor Toshiharu Abe, a social anthropologist (who now serves as AWL Director General), we established "The Archive of the World Languages" because we wanted to commence activities that would allow us to know about language diversity around the world.

Q.What sort of people have become AWL members?

A.Ms. Obata: Our membership is comprised of a wide cross-section of people, we have specialist linguists and social anthropologists, and we also have members who simply possess a love of languages. At our events, we don't just focus on minor languages from around the world. Rather, we develop a range of themes such as dialects and sayings, etc. We also simply offer an opportunity for participants to enjoy languages in their own right. To these events, we invite leading researchers and university academics to give presentations. However, in that our events are targeted at the general public in that their content is easily digested, it is our hope that as many people as possible will come and participate.

"Language Salons":  Each month, a guest is welcomed to present a topic, with members gathering and participating in relaxed and energetic discussions.  It might even be possible for them to view things in a new light. ©AWL

"Language Salons": Each month, a guest is welcomed to present a topic,
with members gathering and participating in relaxed and energetic discussions.
It might even be possible for them to view things in a new light.
©AWL

Q.Please tell us about the AWL website.

A.Ms. Obata: There are specialized archives of the world's languages. However, for the purpose of allowing members of the general public like you and me to read easily-digested information, our website stores a wealth of information concerning a range of languages spoken around the world. It also gives some insights into the lives and cultures of the people who speak them. With regard to minor languages that are particularly at risk of disappearing, many of them have no written form. Such languages present a problem because once everybody speaking them disappears, they will become unintelligible. However, in that there are many young Japanese researchers fighting to get to remote parts of the world in order to record such languages, we are interested in supporting their efforts by placing a record of their research on the AWL website.

Q.Approximately how many distinctive languages are there worldwide?

A.Mr. Yagihashi: Based on linguist calculations alone, you might get a range from 3,000 to 8,000 as the total number of distinctive languages. Thus, you could take 5,000 languages as the midpoint of such calculations. Concerning why there is such a great variation in these figures, I can offer three hypotheses. Firstly, there is the issue of dialects. At the university where I teach, there are exchange students from China who speak among themselves in Japanese because there are distinctive regional dialects within the larger Chinese language construct. Thus, students coming to us from Shanghai and Guangdong can experience trouble when trying to communicate with their compatriots from Beijing. In Japan as well, there is a marked difference between the Japanese spoken in the Tohoku Region as opposed to that spoken in Kyushu. As such, even within the same language group, if you consider dialects that make it difficult for people to express their feelings, then the number of languages counted as being distinctive increases. The second hypothesis I would offer is that of political considerations. For example, with respect to languages such as Dutch spoken in the Netherlands and Flemish spoken in parts of Belgium, despite them being almost linguistically identical, because they are spoken in different countries, they are considered to be separate languages. Thus, in this scenario again the number of languages counted as being distinctive increases. The third issue I would raise is the existence of numerous languages in remote regions of the world such as the Amazon Basin and New Guinea, etc., about which we know little. Depending on how many such languages exist, I believe any estimate of the overall number of languages would be subject to change.

Q.Approximately how many languages are endangered?

A.Mr. Yagihashi: Under the "Endangered Languages Q&A" tab of the Linguistic Society of Japan website, languages spoken by less than 6,000 people are described as being "minority race languages." Of these, approximately 450 are in danger of extinction because only a very few people still speak them. Furthermore, there are even researchers who predict that possibly 90% of the world's languages will disappear during the 21st Century, not just those I mentioned. The question is why is there this decline in language numbers? One reason is that for many such languages there is a decreasing number of people who can speak them. Another reason is the market value applied to languages. If people are told they can "learn whatever languages they like," rather than learning a small-scope language, it is obvious that more and more people will select languages with a higher market value; in other words, languages with a wider scope of application. In a world that has seen business develop on a global scale, a common language is necessary. In this respect, I believe that a consolidation in the number of languages represents a natural evolutionary progression. That being said, however, languages represent a very important asset for the world. Thus, I feel that the disappearance of such an asset should not be passively tolerated. It is for this reason we are working to preserve such languages both grammatically and orally, even if our efforts are only marginally effective.

A collection of greetings from around the world entitled, "I’m glad to have met you," which has been published by AWL. This is a story about a Japanese youth called Taro who travels around the world during his summer holidays meeting a wide variety of people (it comes with an English translation).  The story includes a record of greetings in some 41 languages.  It also introduces the reader to both the Ainu and Okinawan languages of Japan.  ©AWL

A collection of greetings from around the world entitled,
"I'm glad to have met you," which has been published by AWL.
This is a story about a Japanese youth called Taro who travels around the world during his summer holidays meeting a wide variety of people (it comes with an English translation). The story includes a record of greetings in some 41 languages. It also introduces the reader to both the Ainu and Okinawan languages of Japan.
©AWL

Q.In terms of worldwide lingua franca, will the importance of English increase?

A.Mr. Yagihashi: Everybody is aware that English is a common language around the world. However, Chinese and its dialects have also risen to prominence. In China alone, there are some 1.3 billion native speakers of the Chinese language (or its dialects). Added to this, Chinese ranks as the third most common language after English and Spanish in the United States. Moreover, there are a great number of countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, etc., with healthy populations of Chinese diaspora. In the future, I believe that both English and Chinese will become common world languages.

Q.And what about people like us? Do you feel our native tongue will continue to be of importance?

A.Mr. Yagihashi: Yes, for the individual their native language is the number one (or easiest) language for them to speak. Personally I am from Aomori Prefecture. As such, when in Aomori I find it very easy to relax and converse in tsugaruben (Aomori dialect Japanese). In that we live in a society in which dialects represent the mainstream, we obtain a sense of satisfaction from being able to say what we want without hesitation. Thus, it is important that people are able to process language in a manner that represents the basis of the self. However, with native language skills only, the area in which communication is achieved can be quite narrow, thus an individual might not be able to achieve their communicative aims. As such, I feel it is good if an individual becomes familiar with another language, followed by yet another one, and so on and so forth.

Ms. Obata explaining that she would like "regional languages to be valued in order not to lose language diversity."

Ms. Obata explaining that she would like "regional languages to be valued in order not to lose language diversity."

A.Ms. Obata: As Mr. Yagihashi speaks tsugaruben, standard Japanese and English; I feel what can become a strength for individuals is the ability to speak multiple languages. Here I am not just referring to major languages, but also dialects as well. Speaking in more general terms, it is my hope that regional languages and dialects are not forgotten. I feel our great diversity of languages is indicative of the wealth of knowledge possessed by human beings.

Q.And even with English, a worldwide lingua franca, there are variations?

A.Mr. Yagihashi: I would explain variations in English in terms of the existence of three concentric circles. The inner circle represents regions where English is used as the native language. In other words, I am referring to countries such as the United Kingdom and United States, etc., such being bastions of the language. The second or outer circle that runs concentric to the inner circle represents regions into which English penetrated during colonial times, and for whom it still plays a role in modern society. Countries in this circle include Singapore, Nigeria, and India, etc. The third and largest circle is referred to as the expanding circle, and this includes regions of the world where English is used for the purposes of international communication. Japan fits into this circle. Furthermore, while I am sure that you are aware there are also regional differences for English, with regard to such differences they are especially pronounced in the outer circle where English has been strongly impacted by local languages. This has resulted in considerable differences between the English spoken in such regions and the English of the bastion countries. However, I feel that the originality of such English should be respected. This is because there is no sense of superiority or inferiority that can be attached to a language itself. In other words, it is good enough that each of these regions has their own English variant. From a diversity perspective, I am troubled by the premise of seeking to standardize everything.

Q.There are many people who feel that learning English will allow them to engage other cultures…

Associate Professor Yagihashi explains his belief that “depending on the language, the manner in which it is used is different.  As such, I would like people to also learn the ceremonies associated with communication.”

Associate Professor Yagihashi explains his belief that "depending on the language, the manner in which it is used is different. As such, I would like people to also learn the ceremonies associated with communication."

A.Mr. Yagihashi: I don't feel that "ability in languages directly equates to being able to communicate well." For example, I will convey to you the following episode: There was a Japanese person who was injured in a car accident in Los Angeles. However, when the paramedics who arrived on the scene asked; "Are you alright?," this person simply answered; "Yes, I am alright." The result of this exchange was that the ambulance in attendance drove off, without the injured person onboard (laughing). Although perplexing for those of us who speak Japanese in that ours' is "a listener-responsible language" it is necessary to realize that in terms of conveying information when speaking English, it is "a speaker-responsible language." If there are such linguistic differences, it also means there are differences in the ceremonies and customs of communication. Thus, I believe that genuine communication is first achieved only when people go so far as to accommodate such considerations.

Q.It seems that cultural inputs are also a vital part of communication…

A.Mr. Yagihashi: Consider for a moment the cultural context of the following exchange: Person A says, "I was thinking of cashing-in some checks on Thursday." Person B responds, "Thursday is Thanksgiving." In that Thanksgiving in the United States equates to a public holiday, without appreciating such a cultural factor in the context of the communicative interaction, such an exchange between conversation parties fails.*
In order to really experience what might be termed "flesh and blood" interactions with other cultures, I believe it is necessary to thoroughly learn about the communication customs and culture of the people who speak the language, and not just have a familiarity with the words and grammatical structure of the language.

* Source: Yamuna Kachru and Larry E. Smith (2013): Cultures, Contexts, and World Englishes, Keio University Press

Q.Can you offer some advice to people who want to take up the challenge of exchanges with other cultures?

A.Mr. Yagihashi: If people desire to "convey and receive" in cultural exchanges, I feel such intentions do become apparent to exchange counterparties. For example, even if words don't get through, it is nevertheless important to create an atmosphere whereby communication can actually take place because there is the undercurrent of, "please say what you want to say because I will try and understand." Furthermore, rather than becoming solely preoccupied with learning a language, it is important to hold an interest in a whole range of topics, whether they are issues of culture, history, or religion, etc. Instead of thinking about communication with other cultures simply in terms of language, it can be valuable to approach the issue from other directions. I would ask that people participate in the activities of AWL. Such participation will allow them to experience things from a cultural perspective.

News from AWL

©AWL

©AWL

Currently at AWL, we are preparing teaching materials to be used in classes that will assist Brazilian children in Japan in maintaining their native language skills. In the near future, we will have finished a colorful picture book which features Japanese fairytales, complete with a direct translation of Japanese into Portuguese. If these children are able to become bilingual in both Japanese and Portuguese, it will be a great asset for them. Persons who are interested in this project are asked to contact AWL. Furthermore, during the spring holiday period, it is planned to use these materials so that children can read and listen to them.