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The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The fall of the tower of Babel.

There are, according to UNESCO over 6,900 living languages today. Unfortunately, however, 2,500 of them are endangered. Both numbers surprised me, and the latter number, shocked me.

A language is more than a set of sounds. It is a way of seeing the world, a way of understanding the world, it is a codification of the world. Each language is a unique perspective. That 2,500 languages should be in danger of being lost, is terribly tragic. If unrecorded, each loss of a language is a permanent loss of a human perspective, of a world view that will never be, again. Each language is also part of the puzzle of how language came to be, to spread and to become so diverse. All languages are intertwined in one complex "evolutionary" whole. To lose one part of the puzzle is to make the whole forever more difficult to understand: it is to impoverish our understanding of what it is to be human.

Many languages are near their end, preserved in the minds of only a few people. One hundred and ninety-nine languages are spoken only by fewer than a dozen people. These include Wichita, spoken by just ten people in Oklahoma and Lengilu, spoken by only four people, in Indonesia. The deaths of a few people, will push these languages to extinction.

One hundred and seventy-eight other languages are spoken by between ten and one hundred and fifty people. Though somewhat safer, it wouldn't take much to extinguish these tongues either. Indeed, the last three generations of mankind has seen the loss of over two hundred languages - including Manx (from the Isle of Man) in 1974.

India stands to lose one hundred and ninety six languages; America, one hundred and ninety two languages and Indonesia, one hundred and forty seven languages.

With the death of the last speaker of these tongues, so too, dies the language, probably forever.

I do not know, as I write, whether efforts are being made to preserve these languages. If not, there should be. Linguists should be sitting down with these last speakers of exotic tongues and recording, in as exquisite detail as possible, each of these languages before they are lost. In some ways, the task is as urgent and as important as the preservation of species - for the loss of a language is as irreplaceable as the loss of a species.

I feel a certain ambivalence about this situation, for I know one cause of it: the spreading of global languages. I love English, and was born into it - but I would not that English bestrode the world and pushed every other language to extinction. That would be too sad. For though I appreciate English for what it is, I also appreciate that there is great beauty in all the languages I have never heard and never known - each is a world of its own and each deserving of conservation.

Philosophically I like diversity - in people, in ideas, in things. I am, actually, very uncomfortable with conformity. What greater conformity could there be than that all spoke one language? It is a hideous thought and I hope it never happens. I would like the world to continue to be a diverse place, with diverse people, thinking diverse thoughts and living in diverse ways. One of these important sources of diversity is the languages they speak. I don't want a world reduced to Mandarin, English, Spanish, French, Japanese and Arabic. That would be awful.

So, I would urge the nations of the world, to appoint sufficient linguists to capture the essence of every language now living, so that none is fully lost, when its last speaker passes on. As for the speakers of exotic tongues: why not teach it to others? Teach it to linguists if no-one else will listen...or better still, have a child, and speak to it in the crib, with the almost dead tongue you speak, so that one more person might live, to pass it on.

I do not want to see a future in which all Man's great diversity has been lost. All should be conserved...for we are all diminished by the loss of each type of diversity. When a language falls silent, Man has forgotten one way to speak about the world. In a sense, one whole world dies with each dead tongue.

Let not Babel fall, but let the world babble on, and be rich in its diversity.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 12:30 AM 

7 Comments:

Blogger Christine said...

I agree that it's a shame that many languages are dying. Colonialism is the main thing to blame for that. Another one is media caters to the main language of every place and rarely to minority languages. Schools also don't like to preserve minority languages most of the time. In the USA, the native american languages weren't being used for instruction for children. They used to be, but then the "English Only" movement started to make those die out.
There are some efforts to make languages survive. France is using Breton and Languedoc in schools, Britain is trying to save Welsh, and Spain is trying to save Castilian and Basque.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I take this to mean that languages have cultural depths that give meaning and resonances to a language. This would mean that no exotic language will be easy to learn (except superficially) for an outsider.

Thanks for your comment.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I take this to mean that languages have cultural depths that give meaning and resonances to a language. This would mean that no exotic language will be easy to learn (except superficially) for an outsider.

Thanks for your comment.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

There is no reason why the minority languages cannot also be taught. One language can be a lingua franca...but the others should be imparted for cultural continuity.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

I agree. They can teach the minority languages. I do think that it's also very important to start the language teaching when the children are still small. Otherwise they won't grasp it as easily.
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/mission/enduringvoices/audio_slideshow.html

I found that link just now and I thought of you and decided to share it with you.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

It is a great link, thank you, Christine. I am glad to learn that someone is trying to document these languages. I note, however, that they are not learning the languages, but simply recording them, so that there is some digital database with samples of the language preserved. That is, I suppose, better than nothing - but I am not sure if they are actually delving into the structure of the language and making it transmissible. I hope that is done, too.

I wonder if this language preservation effort is well enough funded to capture all the world's languages? It should be. This is an urgent task and should not lack for funds.

11:37 AM  

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