How many languages is too many?

In terms of books that I most come back to think about in terms of its relevance to modern questions is strangely Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914. One of the things that you find in there is this map from p.68 of the edition I was looking at:

What do you find? Much of the population of what is now France didn't speak French as recently as 150 years ago.

In 1863, according to official figures, 8,381 of France's 37,510 communes spoke no French: about a quarter of the country's population. The Ministry of Public Instruction found that 448,328 of the 4,018,427 schoolchildren (ages seven to thirteen) spoke no French at all, and that another 1,490,269 spoke or understood it but could not write it, suggesting an indifferent grasp of the tongue. In 24 of the country's 89 departments, more than half the communes did not speak French, and in six others a significant proportion of the communes were in the same position. In short, French was a foreign language for a substantial number of Frenchmen, including almost half the children who would reach adulthood in the last quarter of the century.

That map is a little similar in concept to one seen in a recent article in Science: AI often mangles African languages. Local scientists and volunteers are taking it back to school

Some of the goals mentioned there seem fairly achievable. For example.

Masakhane’s Decolonize Science project, which Muhammad is also involved in, aims to develop machine translations of African preprint research papers released on AfricArXiv. The preprints are often in English or European languages, but the project plans to translate them into six diverse African languages: isiZulu, Northern Sotho, Yoruba, Hausa, Luganda, and Amharic, together spoken by about 140 million people.

Six languages sounds somewhat achievable, but 2000 languages across the continent and Nigeria showing up as having 520 different languages seems much more difficult to sustain a robust set of resources to support.

In addition it also is much more difficult to provide resources to language communities that are hesitant to trust outsiders and it seems fairly clear that that's the case. For example:

AI RESEARCHERS in the Global South and among Indigenous communities are wary of big tech companies harvesting their data to train proprietary AI models. “Data is the new oil,” Running Wolf says. “And so there’s sort of this very colonial perspective of, this is a land grab,” he says. As a result, many Indigenous communities are crafting protective licensing rules for the data they collect and the AI tools they develop.

Some of these projects are at least hesitantly and cautiously open to sharing due to it's benefits, but I'd still expect the resources available in the less-commonly-spoken languages to be substantially worse than their more-widely-spoken alternatives. As is in Europe I think there are a lot more resources available if you want to learn French or German than Dutch, even though Dutch has an estimated 25-30 million speakers which would give it a population of speakers significantly greater than some of the languages on that Science magazine article's list of "six diverse African languages".

To me rather than a recipe for a robust and thriving economy, trying to maintain full support for a large range of languages, even if some of have only a few native speakers, seems more like a recipes for stagnation.

I've known enough people from Bangladesh to have heard of International Mother Language Day which was adopted by UNESCO and later the UN general assembly to promote multilingualism and linguistic diversity. It's interesting to consider the history behind it in Bangladesh:

In Bangladesh, 21 February (1952) is the anniversary of the day when the Bengalis i.e. Pakistani Bengali Muslims (now Bangladeshi Bengali Muslims) of the Pakistani province of East Bengal (now independent state of Bangladesh) fought for recognition of their Bengali language.

It's one thing for a language with only a few speakers to disappear, but it's another thing for a widely spoken language to be suppressed. How many speakers does Bengali have?

approximately 300 million native speakers and another 50 million as second language speakers, Bengali is the sixth most spoken native language and the seventh most spoken language by the total number of speakers in the world. Bengali is the fifth most spoken Indo-European language.

It's definitely got critical mass with more than twice as many native speakers as all "six diverse African languages" combined and, as such, you probably shouldn't be too surprised that it's survived. In a lot of other cases though trying to support all currently-spoken languages only seems to dilute the support that might otherwise be supplied to those lesser-known-but-still-more-commonly-spoken languages.

Do I think modern France is better off economically for largely being based around a single language? I suspect so.

More random links

Combining Probability Forecasts: 60% and 60% Is 60%, but Likely and Likely Is Very Likely
"we find that people are more likely to act as if they “count” verbal probabilities (i.e., they move closer to certainty than any individual advisor’s forecast) than they are to “count” numeric probabilities. For example, when the advisors both say an event is “likely,” participants will say that it is “very likely.” This effect occurs for both probabilities above and below 50%, for hypothetical scenarios and real events, and when presenting the others’ forecasts simultaneously or sequentially."
Can Restorative Practices Improve School Climate and Curb Suspensions?
It's not looking too promising. Studies is among Pittsburg schools and finds that, despite teachers reporting an improved climate, "Academic outcomes did not improve in PERC schools, and actually worsened for grades 6–8. Arrest rates among PERC schools did not decrease."
World's 1st 'tooth regrowth' medicine moves toward clinical trials in Japan
"The tooth regrowth medicine is intended for people who lack a full set of adult teeth due to congenital factors. The team is aiming to have it ready for general use in 2030. In prior animal experiments, the medicine prompted the growth of 'third-generation' teeth following baby teeth and then permanent adult teeth."
Indigenous tribe wants Ben & Jerry's to return 'stolen' land their HQ is built on
For the lulz: "Chief of the Nulhegan Band of The Coosuk Abenaki Nation Don Stevens tells Newsweek that his tribe is 'always interested in reclaiming the stewardship of our lands,' but the ice cream company has yet to contact them regarding land its headquarters now sits on. The expressed interest comes after Ben & Jerry's controversially tweeted on the Fourth of July holiday Tuesday that it was "high time we recognize that the U.S. exists on stolen Indigenous land and commit to returning it.""

Random links

On the accuracy, media representation, and public perception of psychological scientists’ judgments of societal change
Studying the predictions of psychological scientists through the COVID-19 pandemic: "neither domain-general expertise (i.e., judgmental accuracy of scientists compared to laypeople) nor self-identified domain-specific expertise improved accuracy. ... we show that the public nevertheless expects psychological scientists to make more accurate predictions about individual and societal change compared to most other scientific disciplines, politicians, and non-scientists, and they prefer to follow their recommendations."
Ethan Mollick on Twitter
"Links between physical and emotional states: 💊Tylenol dulls all pain, including emotional pain & the pain of social rejection. It also dulls reactions to pleasurable things. 🤢Anti-nausea treatment lowers disgust at various purity-based violations & also reduces moral judgement". The two studies
Western Australia's new solar redistribution policy
Not a terrible idea IMO: "will provide low-income households with free electricity between 9am and 3pm each day ...The state, like others in the country and further abroad, is working out how to deal with the sharp decline in demand for electricity from the grid during the middle of the day as more homes and businesses install solar panels on their roofs."

Hannah Arendt on forgetting

Politically, the weakness of the argument has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil. - Hannah Arendt width=


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