Map from National Geographic. Interactive version here.
Fascinating piece from the Atlantic on how public radio is leading to a revival of endangered languages:
Loris Taylor, the CEO and president of Native Public Media, still has the scars on her hands from when she was caught speaking Hopi in school and got the sharp end of the ruler as a result. "They hit so hard, the flesh was taken off," she remembers. "Deep down inside, it builds some resistance in you."
Now, she's at the forefront of a movement to revive dead and dying languages using an old medium: radio. As CEO and president of Native Public Media, she's lobbied the FCC and overseen projects to get increasingly rare tongues like Hopi onto airwaves so that Native Americans can keep their ancestors' ways of speaking alive—and pass those ways of speaking to new generations.
Similar efforts are taking place worldwide. In Ireland, Dublin's youthful Top-40 Raidio Ri-Ra and Belfast's eclectic indie Raidio Failte have been broadcasting entirely in Irish for several years. In Washington, D.C. earlier this month, indigenous radio producers from Peru, Mexico, Canada, El Salvador, and a handful of other countries gathered for the "Our Voices on the Air" conference, organized by the 40-year-old nonprofit Cultural Survival and the Smithsonian's Recovering Voices program.
Following centuries of oppression that have marginalized minority languages, radio represents a modest but surprisingly promising way to reinvigorate the traditions keeping those languages alive. In the Maori community of New Zealand, for example, the combination of 21 radio stations and rigorous early childhood immersion programs have brought Maori-languages speakers from an all-time low of 24,000 in the 1980s to 131,000 in 2006, according to Mark Camp, deputy executive director at Cultural Survival.
Two interesting trends are merging together here. One is the fruit of the removal of the industrial era emphasis on cultural uniformity: the idea that a nation-state had a set language and culture and everything has to fall in line with that. While the more heavy-handed manifestations of this have been gone for awhile, it's naturally taken some time for the cultures those systems targeted to mend the effects of that pressure. I've mentioned before how sometimes Breaking Times shatter old barriers, and this is a perfect example. In the absence of artificial discouragement, communities are reviving languages with their own efforts.
The second trend is one I mentioned in The Circle, Unbroken: how media (especially social media) can serve to keep cultures united in the face of obstacles like distance or upheaval. While community radio is certainly one of the older forms of social media, and more centralized than its descendants, it has similar advantages. By tying together disparate individual groups with some common ties (a fading language), it's helped better organize the practitioners and provide an easy point of access for others to adopt the trait.
While media probably can't do much for languages whose speakers number in the single digits, it's a major boost to those like Hopi that were wavering but still have some real odds of survival. Cultures, even old ones, can be surprisingly hardy things.