Globalisation spells the death of minority cultures

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 March, 2015, 6:07am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 March, 2015, 8:54pm

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A fellow instructor at Soongsil University once told me that Korean poetry cannot be translated. I often occasioned debate by asking students to name untranslatable Korean words, such as han, which denotes a sorrow of such profound injustice that it changes you.

By way of translation, I suggested "resentment" or, better yet, the French ressentiment, but they insisted these words didn't cut it.

In the end, we agreed the meaning of han could never be fully rendered unless we carried over all its cultural connotations and associated words and phrases. However, when I asked whether Shakepeare was beyond their grasp because they were not native English speakers, or if the same held true of Japanese television dramas, they usually reversed their position. Once the line of exclusivity had shifted, so did their perspective.

Years later, I asked my students at a school for ethnic minorities in Yunnan province to do the same thing. Unlike South Korea, which has one language spoken by a single ethnic group, China is home to 292 languages spoken by 56 ethnic groups, 25 of which live in Yunnan, so I anticipated a very different conversation.

However, my students - an ethnic medley of Han, Yi, Bai, Hani and Miao - called out words using either Kunming dialect or Putonghua. When I asked if anyone had an untranslatable word from their native tongue, they replied that Putonghua was their native tongue.

That wasn't surprising. After all, it is the official language of China, but the country is lush with others, from the 1½-syllable words of Mon-Khmer dialects to the whopping 12-tone varieties of Miao-Yao. Yet Putonghua and English are pushing many minority languages to the brink of extinction.

In December, Beijing instructed Han officials working in minority regions to learn local languages. This will improve governance in those areas, but it will not save these languages. Indeed, some of them are already beyond help, such as Mango, a variety of Lolo-Burmese spoken only in the Yunnan villages of Mumei and Zhelai by about 50 people.

Some linguists argue that language death is a natural development and that languages survive only as long as they are useful, but in China, it's questionable just how natural a development this is, especially since Putonghua and English are the languages of political and economic power. As urbanisation moves minority families away from other speakers of their language, their children have fewer incentives to learn, say, fluent Yi as opposed to fluent Korean or Japanese. Meanwhile, English remains a part of compulsory education, which means, for many minorities, Yi or Miao becomes a third language.

English is part of compulsory education, which means ... Yi or Miao becomes a third language

To my disappointment, my students expressed little interest in learning the languages of their grandparents. But I cannot fault their reasoning. For them, culture is as powerful a factor as political or economic marginalisation.

Like my Korean students, their tastes are eclectic: they watch Japanese and Korean dramas, Hollywood films and listen to Mando-pop, K-pop and American hip hop. They are taking part in the global community.

Maybe Korean poetry cannot be translated and the death of a language means the death of a culture. But the decision to keep a language alive lies with the people who speak it, and not many young minorities have that desire. Perhaps then, the answer lies not with educators but with entertainers.

Students may not see the value in minority languages, but, in my experience, when they feel left out of an interesting cultural conversation, that's when they reverse their position.

David Volodzko is a former university lecturer now based in Chengdu