If a Tree Falls… asks what sound a language makes when it disappears with no speakers left to mourn it.
I have come to the conclusion that when a language dies, the sound is actually quite deafening.
As many linguists point out, a language that goes extinct takes with it an entire culture, a history, a body of knowledge, a way of understanding the world. But when your living language is taken away from you, you lose something more.
We don’t have to look very far to see what happens when you lose that vital connection to your language. Canada, Australia and the United States – young countries with multi-generational language suppression programs – provide us with a perfect laboratory for studying the effects of language loss.
The experiment went like this. From the beginning of the last century until around 1960, aboriginal children as young as four were forcibly taken from their families to live in residential schools. The goal was to “kill the Indian in the child“. The main tactic to accomplish this, tellingly, was to deprive the children of their mother tongues. They were taught to be ashamed of their language, punished if they were caught using it.
“[I was] forever staying in for talking my language. I … got a lot of strappings. I missed lots of biscuits. I never got a biscuit because of that. We were looking forward to get that biscuit, three or four o’clock in the afternoon, every day. But if you did something wrong you didn’t get a biscuit – you got two tablespoons of cod liver oil. And I started to look forward to that cod liver oil, every day.” [Anonymous; Museum of Anthropology]
Within two generations, the aboriginal languages that had flourished for millennia in Canada, the United States and Australia were either extinct or highly endangered.
How did this massive cultural experiment turn out? Native cultures in all three countries show collective signs of post-traumatic stress, off the scale on the misery index of poverty, depression, substance abuse, educational failure, imprisonment and suicide.
And now a study has drawn a direct line between language knowledge and suicide, a canary-in-the-coal-mine indicator of low self-esteem, depression and hopelessness.
According to Health Canada, suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death for Canadian First Nations youth, who die from these causes more frequently than the general population. But researchers have found that suicide rates are not equally high among all First Nations communities. The suicide risk is significantly higher in young men and young women who belong to tribes that have lost touch with their native tongues.
A study by Hallet et al. looked at a number of cultural variables and found that language loss had the highest correlation with youth suicide. Looking at 150 tribes in B.C. they found that where fewer than half of the elders still knew their ancient language, the young were six times more likely to commit suicide.
Yes, those who lost their language were six times more likely to make the choice of last resort, suicide: during the study period, just one young person in the language-retained tribes committed suicide compared to 84 young people from the language-lost tribes.
When we discuss language extinction, some people point out that languages die off when they become irrelevant to young people. However, I believe this study shows that even very old languages are relevant because they carry the key to identity, self-esteem and belonging. You need only look at the countries where settler populations have ravaged the indigenous cultures to see the full impact of language extermination.
Next week I will be meeting with Betty Campbell, a First Nations language consultant who is working to bring her language – Squamish – back to the young people before it is too late.