Saving dying languages with the help of math

Languages come and go and blend. It's likely been that way forever and the process only accelerates under the influence of mega-languages (like English) that represent a sort of global means of communication. But, increasingly, people who are at risk of losing their native language entirely are fighting back—trying to encourage more people to be bilingual and save the native language from extinction.

At Discover Magazine, Veronique Greenwood has a really interesting story about a mathematician who is helping to preserve Scottish Gaelic. How? The researcher, Anne Kandler, has put together some equations that can help native language supporters target their programs and plan their goals.

Some of the numbers are obvious—you must know how many people in the population you’re working with speak just Gaelic, how many speak just English, and how many are bilingual, as well as the rate of loss of Gaelic speakers. But also in the model are numbers that stand for the prestige of each language—the cultural value people place on speaking it—and numbers that describe a language’s economic value.

Put them all together into a system of equations that describe the growth of the three different groups—English speakers, Gaelic speakers, and bilinguals—and you can calculate what inputs are required for a stable bilingual population to emerge. In 2010, Kandler found that using the most current numbers, a total of 860 English speakers will have to learn Gaelic each year for the number of speakers to stay the same. To her, this sounded like a lot, but the national Gaelic Development Agency was pleased: it’s about the number of bilingual speakers they were already aiming to produce through classes and programs.

Read the rest at Discover Magazine

Image: Gaelic Signs, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from cradlehall's photostream


  1. I respect people’s right to learn whatever language(s) amuse them; but I must admit a certain general unease about ‘cultural preservation’ programs as a genre.

    The ones of the ‘Hey, how about not stealing their land and forcibly sending them to missionary schools to christianize the savagery out of them?’ are of course not an issue. That doesn’t even need any reference to ‘culture’, just to basic human rights.

    Once one wends into the ‘kids these days just want to wear t-shirts and watch hollywood imports!’ territory, though, things get dicey. Acculturation, in no small part, is basically the process of the elders impressing as much as possible of themselves on the young. Sometimes this is more successful than others, either because of internal inter-generational change or because of external competition.

    Given that, you can end up walking into something awfully close to ‘$BENEVOLENT_NGO$ props up local reactionaries’. Next up, UN funding for the Constitution Party to save American culture!(that would probably make their heads explode…)

    1.  The value of preserving lesser-spoken languages is not merely cultural.  It’s scientific.*  I doubt strongly that any language revitalization programs worry about what “kids today” are doing, except that the kids are only speaking a majority language, with no use of a minority one. 

      Linguists everywhere – and I’m not talking about prescriptivists like the French Academy, OK – agree that language change is universal and inevitable.  There’s no stopping it – but there’s value in making sure that large sets of language data are preserved in human populations. 

      And there’s obviously cultural value in that, too.

      *If there were only five languages spoken on the planet (as there someday might be!), linguists would have a terrible time finding even cognates among words, much less similarities in sound systems, morphology, syntax, and semantics.  It would be like trying to compare how gas exchange works in organisms given only an oak, a sea slug, a flea, and a human.  Our understanding of how human cognitive systems work would be vastly underrepresented.

      1. Oh, I certainly understand why linguists want to get their hands on as many languages as possible, preferably still alive. However, as in other areas of research, the desire to do things that make people useful subjects doesn’t really override their personal interests.

        By virtue of being scientifically useful, linguists fall above tourists who want colorful natives wearing ethnic costumes; but have approximately the same ethical rights with respect to their subjects.And, given the close connection between language and most flavors of media and social interaction, ‘what the kids are speaking’ and ‘what the kids are doing’ aren’t exactly separable. You can only preserve a language by making considerable demands on people’s time, interaction with literature, film, games, etc. and chosen company.  Advocating that people devote the effort to your language of choice is all well and good. Demanding that they do so because past people who shared a lot of DNA with you spoke that language, eh, not so much.

        1. I’m not sure where there’s demanding going on here.  The Gaelic Development Agency isn’t stipulating that people put their kids into pre-K Gaelic classes in exchange for foodstamps, are they?  I think they’re just doing advocacy and letting people’s interest and free-will staff the numbers they want.

          And even if there were some form of demanding, what’s the actual harm?  I don’t think little kids care what languages they learn, as long as they’re learning the majority one too (to ensure success in the society they live in) – which they’ll pick up anyway.  Studies across the board show advantages to being bilingual.

          1. “And even if there were some form of demanding, what’s the actual harm? … Studies across the board show advantages to being bilingual.”

            Studies show religious folk deal with bereavement better. Should we demand a Christian nation? Studies show children read to at home perform better academically? Should we send state agents into homes to enforce the bedtime story?

            As someone who is struggling to find English language education for my child, despite living in a country (Wales) which is over-whelmingly English speaking, I despair at your flippancy. I fully support the preservation and promotion of endangered languages, but when emboldened advocacy turns into ‘demanding’ and pushing, cajoling, emotional blackmailing or propaganda, no one wins.

            Learning a language takes a massive effort, and though easier for a child and offering some specialised cognitive advantages, there is always an opportunity cost – less maths, less science, less Spanish, less Chinese (assuming a fixed length school day)… You should learn a language because you want to, because you want to experience the cultural advantages, not because someone has decided in the abstract that ‘you might as well, it’ll do no harm.’ Tell that to the parent who has no idea what their child is doing at school.

          2. I fully support the preservation and promotion of endangered languages, but when emboldened advocacy turns into ‘demanding’ and pushing, cajoling, emotional blackmailing or propaganda, no one wins.

            Don’t you just hate it when the natives get uppity?

          3. In reply to Antinous/Moderator:

            “Don’t you just hate it when the natives get uppity?”

            I am a native (I can only prove it for 200 years) and I am of a Welsh speaking family, and I fully support the right of every parent who wishes Welsh medium education for their children to get it – which they do. However, it is not reciprocated – although most parents get it, they are not guaranteed English medium education, which is a hell of a problem in the north western counties.

            Like the initial poster I replied to, your comment is flippant and is not informed by knowledge of the part of the world I refer to.  I’m really not sure on what planet non-Welsh speakers/learners (like the Welsh First Minister or other posters here) think they can dictate what it means to be Welsh and what language we should speak. BTW, only 12% self-identify as fluent speakers.

            The injustices of old against the Welsh language and culture (which no longer exists as anything tangible and distinct) do not justify a new language imperialism against the English language.

    2. Yes. Cultural preservation is ultimately a losing game. Even prized relics in the most secure of museums will eventual deteriorate. This “saving dying languages” stuff scares me, especially when the mode of saving it is through “equations” and quantified scientific methods

      I think it was either William Burroughs (or maybe Laurie Anderson) who said “language is a virus” – in other words language can’t be preserved in a  glass box.
      Even quirky dialects such as East End London Cockney is being watered down, as the European and American influences flood in

      1. I don’t see it as “saving a dying language” as not letting a still living language become a dying one. When you have a dying language the most you can do is preserve as much as possible.

        Every language that isn’t a dominant language needs some kind of support. Some more than others. Otherwise they just slowly turn into a bastardised version of the dominant language.

  2. I initially read the title as ‘with the help of a math’ and thought ‘oh neat, somebody’s trying to implement Anathem’s maths in real life’.  Was slightly disappointed after that.

  3. Gaelic was never the language of Scotland; originally, it was restricted to the west and the Western Isles. It’s being kept going as a political exercise by the Scottish nationalists, at great cost to the taxpayer. Time to switch off the life support machine.

    The native language of much of Scotland, by the way, is the Scots Language, which is in the same family as English, and is probably spoken by far more people than Gaelic. It’s also receiving government funding, even though some dispute whether it even exists.

    1.  Considering that up to less than a century ago there was a political exercise to wipe out Gaelic and replace it with English at great cost to the taxpayer, you’d think this is only fair no? The predicament Gaelic finds itself in has at least as much to do with intentional policy as more “natural” pressures.

      1. Agreed. I’m happy for all resources to be thrown at making Gaelic strong, just no compulsion like in Wales where Welsh is compulsory in school.

    2. The native language of much of Scotland, by the way, is the Scots Language

      So…a Germanic language is the native tongue of Scotland? Are you using a non-standard meaning for ‘native’?

      1. Well, there’s a fair amount of “Germanic blood” among the lowland Scots. Gaelic was never the language of SE Scotland, for instance.

        It’s native in two senses: Scots is the first language of most natives of Scotland, and Scots is native to Scotland as it originated there.

        1. I say let’s revive Norn and make it compulsory in Orkney, Shetland and Caithness! Breton has been spoken in France longer than French, so, obviously all French people should learn Breton!

          I think there’s a probelm of making a fetish of the map. Some folk like to simplify to the point of meaninglessness e.g. you live in Wales so you should speak Welsh. For all the North Americans out there, Europe is bloody complex. 300 years ago, what is now Scotland had four languages – Gaelic, Scots, English and Norn. At a similar time Wales had several – English, Welsh, insane English sub-languages like Radnorshire and Kaale (Welsh Romani). Even uber homogenous countries like Greece have a multiplicity of lanaguages- Arvanitika, Aromanian, Bulgarian, Romani, Turkish. And, don’t talk about Italy……..

          1. “I think there’s a problem of making a fetish of the map.”

            Absolutely agree. I’ve been reading Ronald Hutton’s book on British annual customs, and every time he includes a map showing distribution of some regional custom, it never matches a political border. Culture is more fluid.

          2. Reply to Ashley Yakeley:

            “every time he includes a map showing distribution of some regional custom, it never matches a political border. Culture is more fluid.”

            Absolutely. Wales is a great example of that. Culturally, I always found most, but not all, of Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire culturally far more similar to the neighbouring English counties than to adjoining Welsh ones. Ditto Monmouthshire and Eastern Flintshire. And, even in Wales proper ( an hour in by car ), the differences are enormous between north and south, urban and rural. In my part of the country, 10 miles can see you go from 75% Welsh speaking to 15%. Ask someone from Newport about Mari Lwyd or the Calennig tradition (big in my family) and they’d have no idea what you’re talking about, just as an old fisherman from Caernarfon would take a guess that the Manic Street Preachers were some kind of Mormon splinter group!

          3. You know, you just sound like somebody banging on about reverse racism.

            What on earth is controversial about requiring Welsh students to learn Welsh? Don’t they teach English in England? But of course, that doesn’t count because the conquerors get to write the rules.

          4. In reply to Antinous/Moderator:

            “What on earth is controversial about requiring Welsh students to learn Welsh? Don’t they teach English in England? But of course, that doesn’t count because the conquerors get to write the rules.”

            Um…. because Welsh is not the home language of most Welsh people – we see as something familiar, yet alien. Most of us live our lives through English and view oursleves as being part of the English language cultural space.  You see, English is the language of the Welsh, and the Welsh language is the language of the Cymry –  a separate but often overlapping culture, who call it Cymraeg. As for conquerors, my parents like most of my friends’, choose not to teach us Welsh despite the availability of Welsh medium education in our locality.

            So I ask you, what’s controversial about requiring students in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado to learn to speak Navajo?

          5. Um…. because Welsh is not the home language of most Welsh people – we see as something familiar, yet alien.

            Members of the oppressor nation generally get cranky when they see the end of empire on the horizon. Tough.

      2. Around the time of the union of parliaments there arose two new notions of national identity. One was “British”, in support of the new political union. The other was “Celtic”, to mean everyone on the islands who wasn’t English, in reaction. In reality both were kind of bullshitty. The Scots are a mixture of Celtic and Germanic and Viking and so on, and for that matter so are the English, all with a great deal of regional variation. Lowland Scots do not have significantly different “racial” origins from Northumbrians or Cumbrians, for instance.

      3. ‘Native’ is a tricky concept. British, the fore-runner of Welsh (and Cumbric and Cornish) was replaced in most of Scotland by Gaelic (via Irish invaders) and south of the Firth of Forth by Old English which developed into Scots. British survived into the Middle Ages in Southern Scotland and Cumbria. Indeed, the oldest Welsh manuscripts originate from Scotland. (Remember Brithsh/Welsh are not mutually intelligible with the Gaelic languages).

        So, the nearest to a ‘native’ language with regards Scotland is Welsh, Gaelic being an artifact of Irish imperialism! That won’t go down too well, even though the evidence is everywhere – the Aber place name prefix is Welsh for ‘mouth of the river’. Check out the origin of the place name Glasgow…..

        Then, of course the whole Celtic thing is a myth. Genetically we’re Iberian, the mainland European Celtic languages were adopted by us a long while ago – after we slaughtered the original Beaker people. So, genetically we’re not ‘Celts.’ Oh, and aren’t the Welsh about 40% English anyway since the industrial revolution.

        This banned Nando’s advert from South Africa highlights it well. The natives of South Africa are the Khoi San – butchered by everyone of every culture and skin tone at some point in time. Don’t here much about them…

  4. Because this is BoingBoing, I have to say English is the Katamari Damacy of languages. 

    A language, like a species, is a convenient tag which really points at a moving target in an ecosystem of similarly moving targets. A language can reflect the values and worldview of its speakers by how it symbolizes their experience of reality. There is something to learn from that. But that aspect of linguistic study  is different from ‘preserving’ it, because, like preserving endangered species, you are really talking about preserving their linguistic ecosystem, which is not going to happen. Read a jokebook from the early 20th century (before cars, radio, movies – but with vaudeville, horses, and OddFellows) and see how much can be understood, much less considered funny!

  5. BoingBoing may not have realized the minefield it was strip-the-willowing into when it opened a thread on language revitalization, but as a regular BoingBoing reader and someone who studies the Gaelic revival for a living, I am excited to see this important issue discussed here. Language revival is intensely ideological no matter how you cut it, for or against, and folk tend to have passionate views on both sides.

    I would like to clarify just one point, or rather, highlight a common formal fallacy when discussing language revitalization: the zero-sum fallacy. Promoting Welsh in Wales does not (necessarily) mean prohibiting English. To illustrate, Welsh-medium education should really be called bilingual education, as the aim is that children leave school fully bilingual in both English and Welsh, and research shows that they usually do. English-medium education should be called monolingual education because the usual outcome is that children leave school monolingual in English.

    Minority language revival activists are almost always advocating additive bilingualism, where the minority language is learned along with the majority language. It is a win-win situation, and when seen in this light, I believe difficult to argue against. The ‘compulsion’ argument is a red-herring. All primary schooling is compulsory in the Britain. Geometry is compulsory. History is compulsory. English-medium education is compulsory in most of Britain. Welsh-medium education is ‘compulsory’ in some areas of Wales, but children are not be denied English. They get both. You have to educate in some language. Why not give kids the benefit of two languages for the price of one?

    1. It’s a complex situation. Children in English medium education cumulatively receive roughly two full term’s worth of Welsh language instruction during their Primary school years, yet leave with effectively no Welsh – count to ten, tell you their name and address on a good day. So, until this gets fixed, this time is a waste; indeed, who can learn a language an hour or so per week – it “should” be much, much more!? In Welsh medium schools, there is no English at all until the age of 7, and there are punishments/demerits for being caught speaking English (in the two different schools my nieces attend at least.) The efficacy of Welsh medium education (effectively bilingual because English lessons are meaningful due to the fact that the kids already speak it) is a huge discussion point, especially when you factor in socio-economic factors and the selective nature of school intakes.
      You seem to have no problem with compulsion. I do, because language is such an intrinsic part of who we are, our cultural identity, how we think and how we interact with the world – it’s not just another school subject. To impose something as profoundly significant as a language and a culture on people from a different tradition is utterly wrong – and Wales is clearly at least bi-cultural, and I am Welsh not Cymry – there are two traditions here distinct from England, which admittedly in some areas like mine often strongly overlap. English imposition was wrongly done in the past to Welsh speakers and we should be careful today how we proceed, ensuring respect for all communities e.g. I recently took exception to receiving my unborn child’s scan in a presentation holder emblazoned with – “Teach your child Welsh – he or she’ll have more friends and learn to count and reader earlier.” Not the time or place.
      “Why not give kids the benefit of two languages for the price of one?”
      Why not educate primarily through Cornish in England then, or Khoi San in South Africa? There were parts of England speaking Welsh more recently than parts of Wales, should schooling be bi-lingual there too? It’s because we’ve made a fetish of the map and the name Wales – it’s become an abstraction to be manipulated by policy makers with little or no thought for the reality on the ground. Language policy should be more granular, finer than county level even, so as to more closely match the linguistic and cultural geographical realities. I’m not a fan of nationalism or nation building, being told where my allegiances should lie because of someone else’s opportunistic sentimentalism.  
      And, the push for Welsh isn’t always entirelyaltruistic – there is money and reputations to be made. The tales I could tell you about some of the Head Teachers I know and their techniques for flipping their schools from English to Welsh medium – “You do realise Mrs Jones that next year, the English stream will be made up largely of chavs. I think Molly’d do better in the Welsh stream don’t you?” The fact is, I and many other parents are concerned that our children will not be able to live (when they grow up) in the communities in which they and their ancestors, going back hundreds if not thousands of years, were born and bred because of Welsh being mandated as a public sector workplace language. (listen to the recent Jeremy Vine show) It will be particularly galling because the requirement will have been to a large degree artificially created/stimulated and in reality, everyone will still actually be speaking English most of the time. BTW, I live on a fault line where the two languages collide.
      Ironically, I’m not sure Welsh has been secured, that the crucial triage work done the last 30 years hasn’t fixed the patient – which is a shame as I am pro Welsh. I think there are  more effective ways of growing the language organically, and, crucially strengthening it. Most Welsh speakers need to improve the quality of their Welsh drastically and make efforts to improve the product, creating and translating art to make speaking Welsh worth the effort.
      I too am glad of the opportunity to discuss as it is somewhat taboo here in Wales. P.S. your job sounds cool.

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