A new language has emerged among young people in Nairobi's Kibera ghetto – Sheng, a portmanteau of Swahili, English and other local languages. Young people speak Sheng, they sing and rap in Sheng and they use it when they don't want their parents to know what they are saying. Sheng is a rapidly evolving language, with new words being added every day.
A language is a living organism, it is consciousness and identity. Languages come and go, but Sheng is an exception. Most of the world's languages are vanishing. Very few new ones emerge. Take Australia. When Europeans arrived, Australia had 250 languages – 700 counting dialects. Today, just 70 remain.
These examples are taken from the film "In Languages We Live" (2005), an homage to linguistic diversity and a warning of how much we stand to lose if the current trend continues. A linguistics researcher who appears in the film has studied 12 different indigenous Australian languages over the last 30 years. Today, they are all gone. A big chunk of the world's cultural heritage has been lost. Forever.
Co-directed by Janus Billeskov Jansen and Signe Byrge Sørensen, "In Languages We Live" and its sequel, "The Importance of Being – MLABRI" (2007), make up the "Voices of the World" anthology. The two films were conceived together, the first presenting a global perspective on the world's language diversity, the second taking a local focus on a people whose language is dying out.
RICHNESS IN DIVERSITY
Janus Billeskov Jansen (b. 1951) is a familiar name in Danish cinema. For three decades, he has ranked editors, not least by virtue of his long-running partnership with internationally recognized director Bille August.
The idea for "Voices of the World" goes back to 1990 when Billeskov Jansen was making a short film recording different reactions of persons at the moment a baby was put into their arms.
"When someone gets to hold a baby, a very fundamental thing happens, no matter if that person is a pregnant woman or a big tattooed guy," Billeskov Jansen says. "The film recorded all these glowing faces – young, old, men and women, from different cultures. The point was that the film could be seen all over the world, because the reactions of people in that situation are so universal. At the end, there was a sign reading, "My future is in your hands". The line had to be translated into all the world's languages, so the film could be seen the world over. It was then that I realised how many languages are in the world. More than 6,000."
Discovering how many languages the world's peoples had developed was so fascinating he couldn't let it go. Reading up on the subject, he realised how grave the situation was for so many of the world's languages. "The world's language diversity is kept alive by the most exposed population groups," Billeskov Jansen says.
"So, our two films are both about languages and integration – how to survive when you don't belong to one of the major population groups, when you don't speak the language of power," he says.
Couldn't it be argued that the fewer languages there are in the world, the easier it will be for people to understand each other?
"It's good to have a common language for mutual understanding. In Europe, that language used to be Latin. Elsewhere, Arabic united people. In China, it was Mandarin. People have always used certain languages to communicate in for practical reasons, in trade, science and religion. That's how it is with English today. That's all well and good. But people need their own individual language, their mother tongue. This is where the cultural richness lies. Every language contains a unique way of perceiving and interpreting the existence of mankind. Every language contributes to our common knowledge and survival. If there were just one language, it would be like trying to understand the Earth's biological diversity by studying, say, a beech tree," Billeskov Jansen says.
A STUDY IN CREATIVE PRODUCTION
Signe Byrge Sørensen came aboard "Voices of the World" in 2003. Her background is in developing Internet projects and documentaries in an international context, including working as a producer at Spor Media and now at Final Cut Productions. In addition to co-directing, she also produced the two films.
"In Languages We Live" was shot in 42 countries. Among Byrge Sørensen's tasks was keeping all the different threads sorted and coordinating the extensive logistical effort.
"It was a study in creative production," she says. "We issued a call for proposals to filmmakers and linguists around the world, asking for different kinds of stories. For instance, we were looking for a story about the last person in the world who spoke a certain language. The nearest place for that was in Latvia, where an old man was one of the last surviving speakers of Livonian. At that point, Janus took over and did the story with a Latvian crew.
"Another example was Australia, where we found stories reflecting that country's history of oppression," Byrge Sørensen says. "We located the Indigenous Australian TV station, Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association CAAMA Productions that had documentaries in the original languages. We got permission from them to use their clips and also got them to shoot supplementary interviews. A third way was used for the Mexican sequence. We located a visual anthropologist in Mexico City who studied the Totonac language. She was stuck and needed money. So we financed equipment for her in return for permission to use her footage. Plus, we generously received clips from people across the Danish film community from films they have made across the world."
"This really is a non-commercial project," she says. "It was only possible because everyone recognised how important it is to call attention to this issue."
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING MLABRI
A segment of "In Languages We Live" deals with the Mlabris, a people of hunters and gatherers who until recently roamed in small groups through the jungle bordering Thailand and Laos. Today, most of the jungle is gone. Only 320 Mlabris remain. Their children now go to school to be able, in a better way, to handle the transition from nomadic life to a settled existence. A Danish linguist, Professor Jørgen Rischel, recently deceased, spent years with the Mlabris and recorded their language in print at the last possible moment. In a generation or two, there will likely not be any remaining speakers of Mlabri at all.
We meet the Mlabris again in "The Importance of Being – MLABRI" (2007). The film follows two young men who set out in search of Mlabri girls to marry and the very first group of Mlabri children who leave their parents to attend a big-city boarding school. Alongside these parallel paths, the film describes how Mlabri culture and their way of life is threatened by a development that seems to have no room left over for such peoples to retain their distinctiveness – including their soft, sing-song language.
"When Professor Rischel first sought out the Mlabris 25 years ago, they were still roaming the jungle," Byrge Sørensen says. "Today, most of them have settled in two villages in northeastern Thailand. A few of them still roam, but in reality they are itinerant labourers. Adjusting to life in villages of up to 100 people has been rough and part of the problem comes from the clash between their hunter-gatherer culture and their new neighbours, who are peasants."
How did the Mlabris react to the film project?
"They feel that they are, and always will be, Mlabri," Byrge Sørensen says. "But you sense how their kids come home from school on holiday and start inserting Thai words into their Mlabri sentences. Not, perhaps, that they directly experience their language as threatened, but they are not blind to the changes that threaten them. They just don't have the preconditions for seeing themselves in a global perspective."
"It's important to mention that this isn't about nostalgia," Billeskov Jansen adds. "We didn't detect a hint of romanticism about nature among the Mlabris. The jungle was cold and wet. It was buzzing with mosquitoes. It's not our task to save these ‘noble savages' from progress but to offer them an opportunity to appear as the dignified people they are. It's all about knowing your past and preserving your language and, in turn, your identity – having respect for your own language and an awareness that all languages are unique and worth protecting and being proud of."
What do the Mlabris say about the film?
"When they saw it, they said it painted a faithful picture of what it's like to be Mlabri," Byrge Sørensen says. "They noted that one of the young men in the film, IDang, still isn't married. And, they commented that it was a nice well fed pig we see at the start of the film."
DEMONISING THE 'OTHER'
The two Danish filmmakers wrote down a set of ethical rules for "Voices of the World". One rule goes: "Since all oppression presupposes dehumanisation of the Other, "Voices of the World" aims to counteract the mutual demonising of cultures, and to achieve this by means of humanising the unfamiliar and the different."
"We do humanist propaganda," Billeskov Jansen says with a hint of irony. "Many of the conflicts we see today are partly rooted in our lack of knowledge about each other. So it is extremely important to know more about each other and thereby come to see things in a bigger perspective. That's why "In Languages We Live" closes with a view of the Earth from space."
As "In Languages We Live" makes clear, languages aren't just vanishing, new ones are also emerging, such as Nairobi's new Sheng patois. How much cause for concern is there?
"People stop speaking their language, because they have no choice! If they see that their children don't stand a chance because they don't speak the main language in the area where they live, they have no motivation for passing their mother tongue on to the next generation. The language issue is part of a bigger picture, and we should not just be concerned about language without being concerned about the fact that people are poor and have no political rights. It's all connected," Byrge Sørensen says.
"We can't just tell ethnic minorities to preserve their language according to an abstract notion that it's important that their perspective on the world exists," she says. "But we can work for the world community – to support minority groups with more resources, allowing them to preserve their culture while they are also part of a bigger context. After all, it's not a problem that people are multilingual. Quite the opposite.
Byrge Sørensen quotes David Crystal, a linguistics professor in "In Languages We Live": "We need to draw attention to the values of multilingualism as a universal human good, and as a personal opportunity to become culturally mature. A language acts in a sense as a straightjacket, allowing you to think in one way only. Then, unless you have exposure to other languages and therefore other experiences and other visions, that is not a very healthy situation."