My outlook: Escaping the endangered list

Salut, numele meu este Shelley.

               As I write this--it is the end of January. As you read this, it is the third week of February and the above words are likely playing a significant role in my life right now. Translated they say, 'Hello, my name is Shelley', in Romanian. I am going to Romania—well, actually I am there now.

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               I tried to learn a few Romanian phrases prior to departure, just like I did 20 years ago when my husband and I travelled to the country to complete the adoptions of two totally amazing daughters. They are now grown, spreading their wings, and undertaking dreams and adventures perfectly suited to the people they have become.

               They came into our lives after living in orphanages, so when we brought them home they needed to adapt to a totally new life, new foods, new home and the concept of family. All of this had to be done in a language that was new to them.

               For the last 20 years February 21 has been observed as International Mother Language Day, an event promoting the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world.

               It is estimated that 43% of the 6000+ languages spoken in the world are endangered. "When languages fade,” the United Nations declared, "so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity." Traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression are lost. The losses are huge considering every two weeks a language disappears. That rate of extinction is surpassing plants, birds and mammals.

Languages are the systems we acquire enabling us to communicate with those who share the same system. A baby's first words are celebrated. Loss of ability to speak is mourned. If vocalization isn't possible we try and create other ways to communicate.

            It seems like any time I get laryngitis I have incredibly important things to say. Of course my thoughts aren't any more profound in those moments than at any other time, but an inability to say what I need to reminds me how much I value being able to communicate.

            As languages and dialects disappear (35 in Canada are critically endangered) it makes me admire even more those who are able to speak multiple languages, but also heartbroken for those who speak a language few others understand. Imagine the isolation if only a handful of others speak your mother tongue.

               For the last 20 years our girls have spoken English. They don't speak Romanian because there was no one to communicate with them. It is unfortunate they don't still have their first language because it would have been something they shared with 26 million people around the world. Their mother tongue is not endangered but it was certainly a loss for them.

My first--and only—language is English, spoken by 500 million native speakers and used regularly by more than 2 billion people. It's not endangered, but it does need to be protected. Protected from being used as a weapon. Protected from abuse. Protected from laziness of turn of phrase. Protected from being reduced to patterns of profanity. Protected from indifference at its power.

Working through lists of words and phrases before going to Romania I was struck by something. They didn't contain suggested curse words, insults or ways of telling people off. Of course if one goes looking you can find those, but on these lists were words of greeting, courtesy, and manners. Words that will help us move amongst people with civility. Terms that engender politeness and respect. If that is the goal when introducing us to other languages, shouldn't it be the same with the one we currently speak?

            Protecting language isn't just about the number of fluent speakers it currently has. It also requires a vigilant look at who is speaking, who is being spoken to, and what words are being used. When we lose language we are indeed losing traditions, memory and unique modes of thinking and expression. When we abuse language we are undermining our ability to communicate properly. We don't want to look back and wonder how it became critically endangered. That’s my outlook.

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