Global Language Justice: On the Life and Death of Languages

When Drs. Isabelle Zaugg and Daniel Kaufman discussed the life and death of languages at a two-day event at Columbia University, they both teased out factors that made a language “living” as opposed to “dead.”  What gives life to language, and what takes that life away?  They spoke on the status of languages in Ethiopia (Zaugg) and New York City (Kaufman).  And though their presentations focused on distinct regions and language users, their common questions complicated an all-or-nothing understanding of language survival.

From left to right: Professor Peter Connor (Barnard University), Professor Lydia Liu (Columbia), Dr. Isabelle Zaugg (Columbia), and Dr. Daniel Kaufman (Queens College)

Life after death

Some linguists claim that a language is dead if it is “no longer the native language of any community”.[i] However these so-called dead languages may remain in use as “second” or “learned” languages. This contradictory idea of a language which is dead in one sense, but not in another, highlights the complexity of language life and suggests possibilities for preserving “endangered” languages beyond simply increasing the number of speakers. For instance, Dr. Zaugg’s presentation explored the question of how under-resourced languages are threatened or bolstered by digital communications technologies, specifically via efforts to digitally support the Ethiopic script and its languages. Dr. Zaugg described the diverse ecosystem of individuals, organizations, websites, and governments that (at least in part) determines the success of language digitization efforts. Similarly, Dr. Kaufman’s presentation on Mixtecan speakers in New York City emphasized the different ways the language is perceived in different contexts—whether at school, at work, or at home. Currently, the common thread in these environments is a misunderstanding of or derisive attitude toward Mixtecan, but the complex networks outlined by both Kaufman and Zaugg suggest unexplored possibilities for intervention and revitalization. Where or in whom might languages live on even after they’re dead?

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How might modern cities contribute to language life and death, and the variable boundary between them?  Daniel Kaufman explores minority languages that are often missed by census, educational, and civil reports.  Photo by Ibrahim Boran on

The veil of misunderstanding

             Dr. Kaufman mentioned that children of indigenous Mexicans are being left back at record rates because they are misidentified as Spanish speakers. Their lack of comprehension is typically misconstrued as a learning disorder. In the workplace, Mixtecan is often resented by outsiders as a secret language and even misidentified or derogatorily referred to by outsiders as “Chinese”, possibly because of its foreignness or because of possible chance phonetic similarities between Mixtecan and Chinese as tonal languages. This attitude has even been internalized by younger Mixtecos. According to one interviewee cited by Kaufman, when she speaks Mixtecan to her children they respond, “I can’t understand what you’re saying. Stop speaking Chinese to me!” Though these three examples might all be thought of as describing a sort of misunderstanding, the phenomena described are all different, and include aspects of ignorance (willful or otherwise), xenophobia, and intergenerational conflict. Most importantly, each purported misunderstanding of an individual speech act represents a misunderstanding of the community of language speakers themselves. How does the identity of a language speaker affect their ability to be understood?

Language ideology

Dr. Zaugg ended by cautioning that building digital supports for Ethiopic is not enough and that supports should be based on a rich historical and cultural understanding of the script’s multi-faceted meanings; otherwise, digital supports will degrade the language they attempt to support. This caution echoed Dr. Kaufman’s discussion of the ideology gap between indigenous languages, which have not been promoted as part of a larger cultural complex, and colonial languages, which have been thus promoted. Compared to French, Chinese, or Italian, indigenous languages have been under assault for over 500 years. Colonialism was thus not a one-time event for these languages but is rather like a self-replicating virus that spreads in the streets and workplaces. This has resulted in a persistent ideology gap de-valuing certain languages, even where indigenous languages are spoken widely as first languages. Indeed, the ideology gap is at the heart of the language justice question: the decline of languages cannot simply be remediated by textbooks, weekly language classes in schools, language learning apps, etc.; it must be dealt with through systemic un-learning of ideology even as language-learning takes place. Closing this gap then seems central to both providing robust support for indigenous language speakers and digital users, and a potential goal of language justice efforts.

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Of the many problems that have come about in relation to digital technology, language justice is one of the most widespread and yet most invisible.  Isabelle Zaugg’s work seeks to make these issues visible.  Photo by Markus Spiske on

The idea of a gap between languages, or the ideologies of language, posits a certain kind of interrelation between languages, one that implies the potential of parity. Indeed, one could wonder: what would a world without the language ideology gap look like?

By Chloe EstepGlobal Language Justice Graduate Research Fellow. The two-day kickoff event of the Sawyer Seminar Series in Global Language Justice took place on September 22-23, 2017 at Columbia University.

[i] Matthews, P. H. “Dead language.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics. 92.

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