Should parents purposely have deaf children if they prefer them, by selecting deaf embryos?
Those in favor argue that the children need to be deaf to partake in the deaf culture which their parents are keen to share, and that deafness isn’t really a disability. Opponents point out that damaging existing children’s ears is considered pretty nasty and not much different, and that deafness really is a disability since deaf people miss various benefits for lack of an ability.
I think the children are almost certainly worse off if they are chosen to be deaf. The deaf community is unlikely to be better than any of the millions of other communities in the world which are based mainly on spoken language, so the children are worse off even culture-wise before you look at other costs. I don’t follow why the children can’t be brought up in the deaf community without actually being deaf either. However I don’t think choosing deaf children should be illegal, since parents are under no obligation to have children at all and deaf children are doing a whole lot better than non-existent children.
Should children be brought up using a rare language if a more common one is available?
This is a very similar question: should a person’s ability to receive information be severely impaired if it helps maintain a culture which they are compelled to join due to the now high cost of all other options? The similarity has been pointed out before, to argue that choosing deaf children is fine. The other possible inference is of course that encouraging the survival of unpopular languages is not fine.
There are a few minor differences: a person can learn another language later more easily than they can get their hearing later, though still at great cost. On the other hand, a deaf person can still read material from a much larger group of hearing people, while the person who speaks a rare language is restricted to what is produced by their language group. Nonetheless it looks like they are both overwhelmingly costs to the children involved. It may be understandable that parents want to bring up their children in their own tiny language that they love, but I’m appalled that governments, linguists, schools, organizations set up for the purpose, various other well meaning parties, and plenty of my friends, think rescuing small languages in general is a wonderful idea, even when the speakers of the language disagree. ‘Language revitalization‘ seems to be almost unanimously praised as a virtuous project.
Here are some arguments for protecting many small languages that have been given to me in conversations recently, along with why they don’t stand:
- Languages have their own concepts that just can’t be expressed in other languages
This is very cheaply solved: assign a bunch of letters in the conceptually impoverished language to said concept.
- Languages have their own style of thought, so if a language is lost a whole way of seeing the world is lost
Since most people mainly experience one language and thus supposedly mainly one ‘way of seeing the world’, the benefits of variety for experience’s sake are low. If one person wants several ways of thinking they can learn extra languages themselves, as always.
- Due to the last point, and the fact that language must affect thought to some extent, if a language is lost a whole host of ideas that would have been thought of in that language are also lost
Maybe a bit, just like if you move house you will have a whole host of different random triggers to different thoughts. Since all the people who would have been speaking the dead language are now speaking a different one, they are presumably thinking of more of the ideas which come naturally with that language. They are probably thinking of more unique ideas, since they are not having to work in semi-disconnect with vast populations they can hardly communicate with.
- When a language dies, culture dies with it
Most activities can be carried out in any language, writing can be translated etc. So presumably, absent coercion, any loss of popularity faced by a particular culture is due to those who did engage in it wanting to do something else. If literature of the dying language wasn’t considered worth translating to the new language, how can it be worth the much larger cost of maintaining a population of people speaking the old language? The loss of a culture is hardly a loss if people wanted to leave it. A culture is just a collection of behaviours, with no rights to human followers. The only loss is of historic data, but recording is relatively cheap.
- Language is cultural heritage, and thus is inherently valuable and should be preserved
That makes no sense, but if you like cultural heritage, record it. I suppose there should be government programs to keep people living in 1980s architecture too?
- There are lots of beautiful sentences to be said in every language. This beauty and the potential for more of it is lost if a language is lost.
First, there are unimaginably many languages that don’t exist at all, also with much potential for aesthetically pleasing constructions. Should we try to encourage more language diversity to exploit each language’s capacity for beauty? Perhaps every school could teach its own language? Second, any given language alone seems to have more potential for beauty than anyone has managed to use up, and I haven’t heard complaints about sharply increasing scarcity of original nice sentences. Third, since most people don’t speak most languages, any given bit of this added beauty can’t be appreciated by most people anyway. If more people spoke a few languages, those languages would have more beautiful works in them, and more people could enjoy those larger sets of work.
None but the last of these is even obviously true, and most of them would be small benefits regardless, compared to the benefit of actually being able to communicate with your language. The cost of most of the world not being able to talk to one another is not just the occasional inability to understand a foreign movie or to get diverse foreign news. There are around 200 million migrants in the world, many of whom have faced the huge effort of learning a new language. Once they have learned it they will often spend years or decades with an accent that makes every conversation with a local unnecessarily difficult. As a result they will miss out on years of opportunities and friendships. I listen to a lot of talks by foreign students and it always seems terrible that they put so much effort in, and yet much of the content is lost on me for lack of coordination in vowel pronunciation and syllable emphasis. I presume these problems are much worse if the number of people who speak your first language is small.
I’m not arguing for extreme efforts to implement a single world wide language or anything like that, but why work toward obstructing communication at the margin? Let people who want to speak dying languages do so, but do not resuscitate, or even offer prophylaxis. Exotic languages are romantic and promoting cultural differences is politically correct, but the main value of languages is in communicating, and a patchwork of local protocols is the antithesis of that goal.