Saturday, December 15, 2012

Linguistic Privilege

I spent all day yesterday composing my personal history statement for UC Berkeley & UC Santa Cruz (mostly for Berkeley since Santa Cruz did not provide any instructions whatsoever). In the process, I discovered some things about myself and my motivations in studying linguistics and wanting to document and preserve endangered languages. (I think I discovered things, at least, although a case could be made that I invented explanations rather than discovering them.) Here are some thoughts that didn't make it into my final draft, about linguistic privilege and the impact that living in Japan as a linguistic minority had on me:
In California, I would have been a member of a privileged class, comfortable without ever recognizing the advantages accorded to me. Growing up in California would have meant hearing my native language all around me; understanding the words used by teachers as well as my classmates did, if not better; exploring entire libraries of books meant for me, because they were in my language. These privileges belong to the linguistic insider, and because I did not experience in Japan, I recognized them when I gained them years later in California, and I recognized that my Spanish-speaking immigrant neighbors were deprived of these privileges.
I perused Ethnologue last night while working on my essay, and reacquainted myself with a statistic I'd like to share here:
6% of the world's languages are spoken by 94% of the world's population; the remaining 94% of languages are spoken by the other 6% of the world's people.
For so many of those four hundred twenty million people (7 billion people x 6%), there is nowhere they inhabit a position of linguistic privilege.

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