Endangered Languages: Why are so many languages becoming extinct?

Pascale Chauvot

15 Sep 2016

Culture and history are reflected in many ways: Clothing, food and architecture are just three common ways to differentiate one culture from another. One of the most potent ways of understanding the culture and history of a country or region is through its language. Unfortunately, many cultures are now under threat and the list of endangered languages is growing day by day.

Endangered languages: what is behind this trend?

In today’s globalised world, language usage is changing rapidly. English is the dominant language of the internet. More people now have a working knowledge of English as a second (or third) language than the number of people who consider English their mother tongue.

Up to half of today’s living languages will be extinct by the end of the 21st century

At the same time, more than three billion people – nearly half of the world’s current population – speak one of only 20 languages as their mother tongue. While this might be great news for speakers of these 20 languages, what hope is there for the 7,000 other languages that are spoken? Do they have a future or are they condemned to die?

In an article recently published in The New Yorker, the issue of endangered languages is explored in depth. They report a concern that up to half of today’s living languages are in danger and will be extinct by the end of the 21st century, other than what is preserved in archives.  This means a language dies on average every four months.

Endangered Languages: Why Do Languages Die? 

Indigenous people, now known as First Nations’ people, have either lost or are in grave danger of losing any working knowledge of their mother tongue

Languages die for many reasons. Some are cultural. For example, many cultures have been colonised or otherwise dominated by another culture. Often, this translated into suppressing the native culture’s mother tongue. If these conditions lasted long enough, then these languages dwindled, were only spoken in secret or died out altogether.

Numerous examples exist in North America, where indigenous people, now known as First Nations’ people, have either lost or are in grave danger of losing any working knowledge of their mother tongue.

In other cases, languages may decline or die in situ, but may be holding tenuously on in another environment. We can see examples in immigrant communities from New York to South Africa. Furthermore, many dying languages can be hard to preserve if their tradition was mostly oral, with few written records ever in existence.

What Are the Consequences of an Endangered Language?

The loss of one more foreign language has consequences much wider than simply losing a vocabulary. Even archived, a dead language may be missing tone, accent, grammar, syntax and context.  These verbal traits are often used to reflect a speaker’s way of thinking as much as the actual choice of words.

Losing a language also can mean losing crucial knowledge about the linguistic group’s history, culture, or even knowledge about their local environment. For example, being able to choose different words for plants or even the earth they grow in also provides scientists, botanists and academics with information that might be lost otherwise if these specific descriptions did not have an equivalent word in a more dominant language.

Losing a language also can mean losing crucial knowledge about the linguistic group’s history, culture, or even knowledge about their local environment

Preserving Endangered Languages

Many linguists and academics, who recognise the value of dying languages, are working to preserve them through the use of modern technology. This can include recordings, which can facilitate some of the language’s context. This can even include mobile phone applications, which may have particular appeal to younger members of a culture.

Texting in Navajo may elevate you to an elite social status in some adolescent circles. The value of being able to speak a dying language has historical precedent as well – indigenous American Navajo ‘code talkers’ were never successfully translated by the Japanese during World War II.

In addition to the accelerated use of technology to preserve the last live use of dying languages by native speakers, many dying languages are being re-introduced or re-emphasised by linguistic communities. It is also recognised that children, whose ability to learn a new language has been called ‘sponge time’, are the future.

Many linguists and academics, who recognise the value of dying languages, are working to preserve them through the use of modern technology

Rather than being made to feel ashamed to speak a minority language, fun learning such as in summer camps and language nests promote fluency in what was once many of these children’s true mother tongue. It has also been recognised that many of these children outperform their monolingual peers in an academically mainstream setting as well.  These types of efforts continue to grow throughout much of the Western world.

A Word of Caution

But for all of these positive steps, there is also a caution. For example, evidence is also noted in The New Yorker article where China and Russia in particular currently consider minority languages to be a threat to their hegemony and may be repeating some of the same mistakes made by the West, especially in the New World.

Finding a way to allow minority and majority languages to co-exist within a broader modern culture is the ultimate key to preventing further languages from dying … and losing the valuable knowledge, heritage and emotional link to the past and future of many cultures.



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