The Power of Language

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By Guillermo McLean Herrera
Professor Emeritus
The University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast (URACCAN)

Language is the key to identity formation. Language is also as a door-opener to a world of opportunities. The first thing that comes to mind when we speak about the power of language is “language in the service of power”. That is, power languages as domineering influences upon otherwise weaker or subordinated languages. Such is the case, for example, of the colonizing powers imposing their language and culture upon the languages of the dominated peoples. Another kind of power, however, may stem from a native language, as it serves to strengthen its speakers’ identities, thus, enabling them to fight their battles with better chances of success.

Another important point to remember about language is that it’s “species specific”. That is, restricted to human beings only. It is said that we share 96% of our genes with the chimpanzees, our nearest “cousins”. Language accounts for the 4% that we don’t share with them.  Animals, indeed, have systems of communications; some have very sophisticated systems of communications, like the chimpanzees and the bees. But no animal, other than man, has language.

Noam Chomsky thinks of it as a gadget and calls it Language Acquisition Device (LAD).  It refers to “the innate capacity of human beings to acquire their mother language and to learn any number of other languages they are exposed to”. Incidentally, it is the mother that creates the conditions for language acquisition in the child. So, language is something that we acquire from the cradle. And that’s why there is such a thing as cradle bilingualism, or cradle tri-lingualism, for that matter!

There are 7000 languages in the world today. Other sources claim that there is any number of languages between 6000 and 10,000, spoken in approximately 200 countries. Half of them are spoken by language communities fewer than 2,500 people, the Rama language being an example in Nicaragua.

Eight countries host within its boundaries more than half of the languages of the world: Papua-New Guinea (830), Indonesia (742), Nigeria (521), India (428), Mexico (298), Cameroon (286), Australia (273) and Brazil (235).

According to National Geographic, half of the languages of the world are at the verge of extinction in this century. A language disappears every two weeks, when its last speaker disappears. In the XVI century alone, 1000 languages and 10,000,000 indigenous peoples were wiped out!

Some 3,000 indigenous languages in the world are at the verge of extinction. The disappearance of a language is translated into the disappearance of knowledge. A language never dies alone; rich sources of information about the people, their history and their culture are also lost in the process.

There are many of us who have learned one or more other languages, in addition to our mother languages: some of us for practical reasons, because this was a good way to get a job; some for cultural purposes, because it is cool to be bilingual or tri-lingual; and some just for the fun of it! These are all powerful reasons to learning another language.

But beyond these obvious advantages, there is a whole world of knowledge out there: arts, science and technology accessible to us through language, just waiting to be discovered.  Indeed, speaking other languages, including our other own national languages, opens a whole new world of adventure before our eyes. And when you travel, the deep satisfaction shown in the peoples’ faces can only be fully captured if you speak to them in their own language. Immediately you become “one of them”.

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