By Adam Vaughan
The Welsh language could be set to thrive over the long-term, according to projections of whether endangered languages will flourish or fail. New Zealand’s native language on the other hand is projected to become extinct.
More than half of the world’s estimated 7000 languages are expected to go extinct by 2100. But the Welsh language, spoken by about half a million people today, is expected to “thrive in the long term”, based on a model looking at how proficiency in languages changes over time.
By contrast, te reo Māori, the language of the indigenous Maori in New Zealand, which nearly 4 per cent of the country can speak, was found to be “on a path towards extinction at current learning rates”.
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The projections come from a team across three New Zealand universities, who built a model that splits populations up by looking at whether they fall into one of three levels of proficiency in a language, and how fast people learn. The model was first trained on census data in Wales and surveys of Welsh language use since 1991, and then run on te reo Māori using New Zealand census data.
The researchers say the results suggest that the New Zealand government will miss its target of a million te reo Māori speakers by 2040, “without a major increase in learning rates to levels above those achieved in Wales”. They suggest policies targeting learning in schools, with teachers focusing on the country’s Maori before widening out to the rest of the population, to avoid them being spread too thinly.
However, some say the results should be treated with caution. Hywel Jones at Cardiff University, UK, notes that the model is built on relatively little data. “You’re putting a model on a tiny data set. As far as usefulness for language planners, I don’t buy it.”
The research also doesn’t take into account the prospect of speakers losing their proficiency in a language, says Jones, which he thinks is unreasonable. “There is language attrition,” he says. A former statistician at Welsh Language Board, Jones raised doubts about the feasibility of the Wales government’s target of one million Welsh speakers by 2050 when the goal was being set. Keeping Welsh speakers at today’s levels would be more realistic and count as success, he says.
Journal reference: Journal of the Royal Society Interface, DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2019.0526
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