Brock experts discuss disappearing languages, early learning ahead of International Mother Language Day

EXPERT ADVISORY: February 15 2024 – R0021

Brock University experts are hoping to shine light on the alarming rate at which the world’s languages are disappearing — and on the importance of preserving them.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which commemorates International Mother Language Day on Wednesday, Feb. 21, says a language disappears every two weeks, leaving an estimated 45 per cent of the world’s 7,000 spoken languages endangered.

Brock Associate Professor of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures Jean Ntakirutimana, who speaks the central-east African languages of Kirundi, Kiswahili and Kinyarwanda as well as French and English, calls the disappearance of languages a “big loss for humanity,” as each language is an intergenerational “database of knowledge.”

“Each culture has a way of understanding, and expressing, the world around them: the fauna, flora, the people, everything,” he says. “We learn how to interact with the environment around us — how to maintain and take care of it and how that environment can be beneficial for us.”

Ntakirutimana notes how maps showing endangered ecosystems line up with maps where languages are in various stages of becoming extinct.

Replacing local languages with dominant, foreign languages can cause confusion, Ntakirutimana says. He recalls being taught in elementary school about the four seasons in French (printemps, été, automne and hiver) — concepts he couldn’t grasp well as a child because Burundi has only a rainy and a dry season.

Despite the challenges, Ntakirutimana sees signs of a linguistic revival in Africa and elsewhere. Communications technologies are evolving and increasingly connecting people who speak the same language, he says, and new languages are evolving, especially among youth.

Sherri Vansickle, Assistant Professor in Brock’s Indigenous Educational Studies program, who is from Onondaga Nation, Eel Clan, says that, along with celebrating Mother Language Day, there is also a grief process for Indigenous communities mourning their language loss.

“Many Indigenous people in Canada don’t speak their mother language because of Indian Residential Schools,” she says. “Every time a language speaker passes on, it’s like losing a library to the Indigenous community.”

Vansickle says many residential school survivors would not teach Indigenous languages to their grandchildren as a way of protecting the next generation from the harms they endured themselves.

Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and its calls to action, Vansickle says there is a renewed hope Indigenous languages will be preserved. She notes that the Mohawk, Cayuga and Nishnawbe languages are taught at Brock University.

“As educators, we make sure to always use Indigenous words: Skén:nen (peace), Kariwiio (power) and Kasastensera (righteousness),” she says. “Transmitting these foundational concepts to students gives us hope that future generations are learning about the formation of the confederacy.”

For Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics Lynn Dempsey, educating children early in their mother tongue forms a strong base for subsequent language and brain development.

Knowledge of grammar, sounds and conversational and storytelling skills children acquire in their mother tongue will transfer to other languages such as English, especially when the mother language has a similar sound system to the second language, she says.

“It’s not just spoken language skills that transfer,” says Dempsey. “Research shows that skills in the mother language transfer to reading and writing in a second language. For example, early experience with books in the first language predicts reading comprehension in a second language later on.”

Bilingual children seem to be better at “executive functions,” or switching attention between different aspects of a task, says Dempsey, adding they are “better at tasks that involve ‘tuning in’ to the sounds of language.

“For example, they can count the number of sounds in a word better than monolingual children. Being able to ‘tune in’ to speech sounds helps children learn to read,” she says.

Jean Ntakirutimana, Brock University Associate Professor of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures; Sherri Vansickle, Assistant Professor in Brock’s Indigenous Educational Studies program; and Lynn Dempsey, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics are available for media interviews on the topic.

For more information or for assistance arranging interviews:

* Doug Hunt, Communications and Media Relations Specialist, Brock University or 905-941-6209

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