Society

Why Do We Need To Save Dying Languages?

With the death of a language, the ability to understand the culture who spoke it is threatened.

Languages Around The World

While it may seem like only a handful of languages are used around the world, the reality is that a vast number are spoken by people in different countries and cultures. In fact, linguists suggest that around 6,500 languages are currently used for daily communication needs. Many of these are not well known and are utilized by indigenous peoples. The diversity in languages, however, is declining. Over 400 languages were lost over the last 100 years, at a rate of 1 every 3 months and approximately 50% of the languages remaining today are expected to disappear over the next century. In other words, 1 language will go extinct every 2 weeks. Some researchers believe that the percentage is higher.

Why Do Languages Become Extinct?

As previously mentioned, thousands of the current living languages are spoken by indigenous individuals. Because these languages are usually only spoken at home by older generations and not typically taught in schools, children do not become fluent speakers. Additionally, once these children become adults, they are less likely to need knowledge of the indigenous language in their daily lives and instead adapt more commonly spoken tongues (like English, Mandarin, Arabic, Swahili, and Chinese). Because of this movement toward more dominant languages, these individuals do not go on to teach the indigenous languages to their children, believing that the dominant language is more valuable for future employment opportunities. Over time, the remaining speakers pass away, causing the language to become extinct.

The Importance Of Language Diversity

Many individuals question the importance of language diversity, likening language extinction to “survival of the fittest” or viewing it as a personal choice that individuals choose not to continue using their native tongue. Linguists are quick to point out, however, that when a language dies, a wide range of information is lost forever. The oral traditions of an entire culture are gone and with that, the songs, anecdotes, and historical occurrences that document an important piece of human history are also lost. Information about the medicinal value of plants and habits of local animals becomes a mystery to future generations as well.

Other researchers point out that it is not only information that disappears, but also a unique way of looking at the world. Each language has its own phrases, expressions, and grammatical rules that provide a different point of view and understanding of the world around us. The language a person speaks also affects the way they think and process information. In fact, indigenous languages are often considered more complex in nature than a widely spoken language like English, which has been simplified over the years in order to be more widely applicable. Without language diversity, the world becomes slowly more homogenous in a variety of ways.

Still, other experts suggest that having a unique language shared by a specific culture facilitates communication and encourages collaboration among people. These lesser-known languages also provide a sense of cultural identity and of communal belonging.

Saving Endangered Languages

Academic departments and nonprofit organizations around the world are dedicated to saving endangered languages. Researchers are currently recording and documenting some of the most critically endangered languages in order to ensure a record remains after the last speaker is long gone. The idea behind this preservation technique is that the language could be reintroduced at some point in the future should a person or group of people be interested in reviving the tongue. One example of this is with the North American native language Miami, which became extinct in the 1960’s. Today, it is offered as a course at the Miami University in the US state of Ohio.

Another way of preserving languages is by introducing language revitalization classes to children. By encouraging children to study and become fluent in a language, linguists hope it will survive through them and be passed along to future generations. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Natives in the US have begun just such a program. One interested party began volunteering to teach the Cherokee language to school children when he realized not many people were left who could understand the indigenous tongue. As additional individuals became more interested in reviving the language, the tribal council created a language immersion school.

Technology also plays a role in preserving languages. Digital classrooms, podcasts, audio recordings, phone applications, and computer programs are all available in a number of endangered languages. At the same time, however, technology also works to suppress language diversity by being available in only a few of the most widely spoken languages. For example, the vast majority of online information is only published in English.

The Most Endangered Languages In The World

Languages go through several stages before becoming extinct. The first of these stages is possibly threatened, which occurs when an outside language becomes the dominant language of business and education while the possibly threatened language continues to be spoken at home by both adults and children. As the dominant language continues to render the possibly threatened language less and less useful, the language moves into an endangered status. The following stages include: severely endangered, critically endangered, moribund, and extinct.

According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 577 languages are currently listed as critically endangered. This categorization means that only a small number of speakers can be found in the oldest living generation and many of these individuals are not completely fluent. An additional 537 languages are considered severely endangered, which means it is only used by the oldest living generation.

Of these 577 critically endangered languages, several have only 1 speaker left alive and many may have already gone extinct. Some of the most critical of these languages include: Yamana (spoken in Chile), Taje (spoken in Indonesia), Pemono (spoken in Venezuela), Laua (spoken in Papua New Guinea), Kulon-Pazeh (spoken in Taiwan), Kaixana (spoken in Brazil), Diahoi (spoken in Brazil), Dampelas (spoken in Indonesia), Bikya (spoken in Cameroon), and Apiaca (spoken in Brazil). The solitary remaining speaker of these languages has not, in many cases, been heard from for several years. In fact, some linguists believe most of these languages may already be extinct, with the exception of Kulon-Pazeh, which continues to be spoken as a second language by a small population.

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