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Linguists agree that all five to six thousand languages of the world are equivalent in terms of linguistic complexity and expressivity. However, languages are not equal in terms of social impact. Most of the languages of the world are spoken only by a few hundred or a few thousand people, while a dozen or so are spoken by over a hundred million people each. Furthermore, some languages are spoken within a very limited geographical area, whereas others are spread widely around the globe. Thus, languages are perceived as having market values, some endowing their speakers with significant economic advantages and others lending their speakers little whatsoever.
Although people view languages as a kind of capital, the supply of this commodity is unlimited. Rather, there is a rich-get-richer situation whereby the more speakers a language has, the more valuable it is perceived as being, and so the more speakers it acquires. Calvet describes this situation as a gravitational system in which each language serves as an attractor of speakers, with larger languages (in terms of numbers of speakers) attracting more speakers than smaller languages.
Calvet organizes the languages of the world into four levels. At the top is a single "hyper-central" language, which has more speakers (not necessarily native) than any other language; currently English serves this role. On the second level are about a dozen "super-central" languages, such as French, Spanish and Arabic, which are each spoken by hundreds of millions of speakers across wide expanses of the globe. On the third level are about a hundred central languages that are spoken by millions of people each and play important economic and social roles over particular geographical areas. Finally, on the fourth level are the remaining five thousand or so languages that are spoken over very limited areas by very few people.
Within this four-tier organization, Calvet distinguishes two types of bilingualism. In the case of horizontal bilingualism, a person speaks two or more languages of the same level. For example, in regions such as the Amazon or New Guinea, where hundreds of different languages are spoken, it is normal for a person to be able to speak not only the language of his or her village, but also those of nearby villages. Likewise, a European who speaks both French and German is a horizontal bilingual. The most salient feature of horizontal bilingualism is that the bilingual perceives each language as roughly equal in value.
Languages tend to cluster together in what Calvet calls constellations. Languages at a particular level tend to organize themselves around a particular language at the next higher level, which serves as a common mode of communication within the cluster. Calvet calls bilingualism across levels vertical. In the case of vertical bilingualism, the acquired language (at the next level up) is perceived as having more value than the speaker's native tongue.
Vertical bilingualism has several interesting aspects. First, Calvet maintains that vertical bilinguals tend to learn the language at the next level up before learning languages at even higher levels. Calvet illustrates this with the hypothetical Senegalese whose native language is Diola (level 4) but also learns Wolof (level 3) and then later French (level 2) and then finally English (level 1). Second, vertical bilingualism is inevitably upward. That is, people see the value in learning languages at a higher level than their native tongue but not in learning languages at a lower level. Thus, the native speaker of French is far more likely to also speak English than is the native English speaker likely to speak French. Indeed, native speakers of the hyper-central language have little incentive to learn any other language, and so they are by and large monolingual.
This hierarchical organization of languages has a significant impact on the transmission of languages from one generation to the next. Parents want to give their children every possible advantage, and if they perceive their native tongue as less valuable than a certain other language, they may choose to raise their children in that other language. This is often true among immigrant populations. However, we can also see this in situations where one language dominates politically and economically over other languages within a particular country. Linguist David Crystal, in his book "Language Death" (2000, Cambridge Unversity Press) relates the story of the Johannesburg taxicab driver who was conversant in all eleven official languages of his country, but saw little value in this linguistic ability and was raising his children in English.
Thus, Calvet's ecological model sheds light on the mechanics driving language extinction. Languages perceived as having low prestige are less likely to be transmitted to the next generation. Furthermore, the model suggests there is little that can be done to prevent or slow down the process of language extinction, in spite of the linguistic activism of David Crystal and other linguists in recent years. Some minority languages, such as Catalan, may survive because of their rich literary histories, but many others, especially those with no history of writing, will go extinct as globalization progresses.
Calvet's ecological model is thought provoking, and the copious examples he draws upon to support the model are fascinating. The book is surely to be of interest to any student of the social aspects of language.Towards an Ecology of World Languages OverviewThere are around 5,000 languages spoken across the world today, but the languages that coexist in our multilingual world have varied functions and fulfil various roles. Some are spoken by small groups, a village or a tribe; others, much less numerous, are spoken by hundreds of millions of speakers. Certain languages, like English, French and Chinese, are highly valued, while others are largely ignored. Even if all languages are equal in the eyes of the linguist, the world's languages are in fact fundamentally unequal. All languages do not have the same value, and their inequality is at the heart of the way they are organized across the world.
In this major book Louis-Jean Calvet, one of the foremost sociolinguists working today, develops an ecological approach to language in order to analyse the changing structure of the world language system. The ecological approach to language begins from actual linguistic practices and studies the relations between these practices and their social, political and economic environment. The practices which constitute languages, on the one hand, and their environment, on the other, form a linguistic ecosystem in which languages coexist, multiply and influence one another. Using a rich panoply of examples from across the world, Calvet elaborates the ecological approach and shows how it can shed light on the changing forms of language use in the world today.
This path-breaking book will be of great value to students and scholars in linguistics and sociolinguistics and to anyone concerned with the fate of languages in our increasingly globalized world.
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