I was reading today about Irish or Gaelic which is an endangered language (yes, I realize that the story came up because it’s St. Patrick’s day). It struck me that it is a somewhat different bilingual situation from that which we find here in the U.S.– although it might be parallel to taking a foreign language in high school or college. What’s different here is that Irish is required in the Irish school system and that it is Ireland’s official language. Yet, there are fewer and fewer people who speak it.
This situation makes the need to acquire the language somewhat artificial and indeed (like high school foreign language instruction) those who study the language soon forget it because they don’t have a need to use it. This also illustrates why in the U.S., English isn’t in danger of becoming extinct. The language of school, work, and government is English (whether it’s deemed so by making it official or not). Children who start school not knowing English soon learn it. There are lots of reasons to do so.
So, how to save Irish? I don’t know. Logic tells me that if there were a need to communicate in Irish, it could and would not be endangered. There would need to be an every day need to communicate in Irish in order for the language to continue to thrive.
Does a community need a language to maintain their culture? Perhaps not, there are cultural differences among those who share English as a common language. And Irish has certainly had an impact on English. At the end of the article I link above there’s a quote by Myles na Gopaleen “There is probably no basis at all for the theory that a people cannot preserve a separate national entity without a distinct language, but it is beyond dispute that Irish enshrines the national ethos, and in a subtle way Irish persists very vigorously in English.”