dying languages, tourism

Can tourism revitalize dying languages?

8 minutes to read
Victoria Mohr

Some estimates say the world could lose 4,000 of its 6,000 languages by the end of the twenty first century (Grenoble & Whaley, 1999). Can tourism help change that?

Dying Languages

Linguists assert that the number of distinct languages in the world has been gradually decreasing over the course of human history. However, an alarming acceleration of “language death” seems to be occurring under the current wave of globalization (Brenzinger 2007). Hinton & Hale (2013) state that a language that is not a language of government, education or commerce is likely to be extinct within a few hundred years. The massive expansion of English and other “global” languages through both traditional commerce and the internet has certainly played a massive role in the death and degeneration of many languages.

While we still have 6000 languages in the world, how do we define those that are “endangered” for protection? According to the Linguistic Society of America, an endangered language is “one that is likely to become extinct in the near future” (Woodbury, 2018). Often this is because it is gradually used less and replaced by another language that is widely used in the region. Often fewer and fewer children are socialized into the language over several generations. Moreover many communities face a history of genocide, colonialism, or otherwise forced linguistic change (Woodbury, 2018).

The problem with the commodification of endangered languages is exactly that - they become artifacts.

But what is the value of these dying languages? Is there anything to be said for a linguistic survival of the fittest? Brenzinger (2007) explains that the decline of these languages will result in the loss of knowledge that is based on specific cultural and historical experience. A diversity of world views, as manifested in languages, holistically benefits not just individual linguistic communities but humanity more broadly. UNESCO (n.d.) says that extinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others.  

However this loss is no doubt particularly devastating to the communities themselves. Language endangerment and loss is a direct hit to the culture and heritage of already marginalized communities.

Can Tourism Save a Language?

Many language revitalization efforts focus on education, both through formal schooling and community based initiatives for adult learners (see Dementi-Leonard & Gilmore, 1999, Johnson 2016; Weinberg & De Korne 2015). Several communities have instead of or alongside education also taken on tourism as a vehicle through which to revitalize their language. This is often called cultural or ethnic tourism, wherein communities market their traditional ethnic culture to attract tourists (Williams, 2009; Yang, 2007).

Communities such as Sami, Xaayda/Xaad and Irish speakers have taken a step further and incorporated their language into these tourist attractions in an attempt to raise awareness for language revitalization.

Sami is a language family in Scandinavia and north-west Russia, spoken by a protected indigenous community.  Despite formal recognition in Finland and traditional education efforts, the Inari Sami dialect has a diminishing amount of speakers. Kelly-Holmes and Pietikainen (2014), examine how the Sami language is used in the case of a traditional reindeer farm turned tourist attraction.

The farm in Inari attempts to sell the Sami culture and language to tourists through tourists ‘experiencing’ a traditional farm. The farm is run by a Sami family who uses traditional clothing and farm practices, as well as the Inari Sami language.

However tours of the reindeer farm are provided in English, Finnish, and German - not in Inari Sami. The tour does however discuss the importance of the language with tourists. Through this process, awareness and value is given to the language in the eyes of tourists and the Sami population. However it seems to have had little direct impact on the amount of speakers.

For tourists in search of authenticity, languages seem to be perceived as another ‘artifact’ of that local culture.

We see a similar approach and impact in the Haida Gwaii islands. Only two dialects of the native language family remain, Xaayda and Xaad, and the number of speakers of these is limited. Community-based tourism initiatives were taken to preserve languages such as speaking dialects during guided tours, welcoming tourists with traditional greetings, use of dialects in multimedia exhibits, tourism businesses, etc.

Whitney-Squirea, Wright and Alsopb (2017) add that tourists at the Haida Gwaii islands see languages and dialects as the way to experience identity and place, as a reflection of people and traditions, and they attach importance to how a community values these. The study shows that tourists better understand the importance of improving language speaking opportunities and the potential to learn and share languages and dialects through community-based learning initiatives.

Perhaps the strongest language of the ones discussed here is Irish in Ireland. A case study of the tourist village Dingle found that while Irish is still the main language, most people are bilingual Irish-English. Despite government led language-planning initiatives and state recognition, similar to Inari Sami, there are increasingly fewer Irish speakers (Walsh, 2011; Moriarty 2011).

The tourism industry in Dingle focuses mainly on traditions, which consequently helps the maintaining of the local culture and the local language. In commercial settings, texts are written in Irish when they focus on local clients, and in Irish-English when they focus on locals and tourists. For tourists this presents a blend of ‘exoticness’ and authenticity.

Commodifying Authenticity

Common to these three case studies is the attempt to commodify linguistic resources that have gradually lost value in the context of the global language marketplace. However, raising awareness and cultural value is not the same as the work of increasing speakers of certain languages. What instead is commodified is not the linguistic resources themselves, but the portrayal of authenticity.

Warschauer (2000) states that  language plays an important role in portraying a real and ‘authentic’ identity. Or, at the very least, the accepted version of that identity, which is thus perceived as authentic (Williams, 2009; Yang et al., 2016). We have seen this is the three case studies above - perceived authenticity is a crucial factor in selling a cultural experience. This is done through several processes such as the commodification of a ‘package’ of local culture and language. Interactions between tourists and locals can be staged to some extent, and tourist spaces are framed through the use of linguistics and local semiotics (Jaworski and Thurlow, 2014).

Tourism does not increase the number of speakers of endangered languages, which is important for maintaining it.

For tourists in search of authenticity, languages seem to be perceived as another ‘artifact’ of that local culture. This is why the tourism industry turns to local, endangered languages to enhance performed authenticity. However, the problem with the commodification of endangered languages is exactly that - they become artifacts. They are preserved, discrete units of linguistic performance, and while empowering, this has thus far not served to increase speakers in the communities mentioned above.

Bianchi (2003) states that the commodification of culture can become an instrument of empowerment of local cultures to construct or reinforce their identity. It empowers locals to be proud of their culture and language, to be conscious and even to have greater control over the importance of local culture and languages (Cole, 2007). However, Heller, Jaworski and Thurlow (2014) mention the necessity of multilingualism for the tourism industry: the endangered language for authenticity purposes and a global language to welcome the tourist. The local language is a valuable artifact, but only in translation to a more global language.

Commodifying language for tourism

The commodification of a language for tourism purposes, although it provides the opportunity for tourists to learn more about an endangered language and its value for a local community, is for only a short period of time. The learning opportunity helps put the endangered language on the map and raises awareness. The interaction between both the local and the tourist is, however, brief and focused on language as ‘heritage’ and not on the learning of a language itself. The impact on the tourist is therefore limited - too limited to be influential on the maintaining of an endangered language for the long-run.

Overall, promoting endangered languages through tourism is a good initiative. People can become familiar both with the concept of endangered languages and with the languages themselves. Awareness is raised and speakers can gain a sense of empowerment. But the fact remains that tourists do not actually learn the language itself, and the need for the language is not great enough to single handedly spur the creation of new speakers within the community.

Tourism does, therefore, not especially increase the number of speakers of endangered languages, which is important for maintaining it. While educational efforts have struggled, they have a more direct impact on the number of speakers. However it remains that the relationship between language and identity is important for language preservation. While tourism can have benefits, it cannot save languages on its own.



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