Why We Should Care About Dying Languages


VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, there are 576 languages that are critically endangered (the grandparental generation only demonstrating partial use of the language,) with thousands more categorized as endangered or threatened (spoken by grandparental generation but not used or being taught to younger generations.) It is predicted that most of the imperiled languages will completely die out by the 22nd century.

How does a language die?

Language imperialism is defined as “the transfer of a dominant language to other people.” The imposing of the dominant language is usually associated with power, whether it be military, political or economic.

When one country is invaded by another, the incoming people impose their language on the natives in order to unify everyone under one tongue, as well as make the natives prove loyalty to their new government.

After political pressure from a new regime, economic pressure to learn the unifying language grows. The process usually begins with the languages co-existing, but eventually parents stop teaching their children their native language, fearing that it will hinder them from learning the new language of the land and getting a job.

Where are dying languages?

The U.S. and Canada sent Native American children to English-speaking boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native languages. Before conservation efforts, there was a time when only about 400 Cherokee speakers were left in the Eastern Band, the only tribe in North Carolina recognized by the U.S. government. Other Native American languages being pushed out are Comanche, Colorado Southern Ute, Pawnee and Osage.

Similar boarding school techniques were used to remove Celtic languages in Ireland and Wales such as Gaelic, and Kosovars’ struggle to continue speaking Albanian with new Serbian policies prohibiting it.

In South America, Spanish is known as the unifying language, therefore indigenous citizens must learn Spanish in order to get jobs outside of their communities to support their families, which is why pre-Colombian languages such as Quechua, Quichua, Aymara and Guaraní are slowly dying out.

In Italy, the ancient Etruscan language was forced out when Latin speakers invaded the Italian peninsula, and later on, Italian gradually replaced Latin.

In Africa, it is encouraged to abandon original tribal languages in order to speak Swahili, creating the same demise for those indigenous tongues as well. Even the European Union is concerned that English is the only language many Europeans have in common and will eventually phase out other European languages.

Older languages are pushed out by newer, broader ones and immigrant languages are no longer passed down to children. For example, Lithuanian speakers in the United States are severely declining, as their parents do not find it necessary to teach their children when English is the unifying language.

Why is it important to preserve these dying languages?

For starters, in the unwritten languages, the spoken form is the only thing preserving the culture. Only about a third of all languages are written. Therefore, a community’s songs, stories, poems, etc., are lost once the language dies.

Also, the original language of a community contains knowledge about the area the community inhabited that cannot be directly translated. The words used help explain aspects of the geography, mathematics, astronomy, pharmacology, botany, zoology, meteorology and other useful schools of information. For example, the Cherokee language has words for every type of berry and stem, with the anatomy of each word giving information about the properties of the item.

In Northern Australia, an outbreak of skin ulcers occurred, where doctors ended up using medical knowledge only known in a rare traditional language in order to find a cure. Currently in Australia, there is a general search for medicinal plants known by aboriginal people throughout their languages and cultures. When these languages die, the medicinal knowledge may die with them.

Since no two languages are the same, examining the differences among them helps bring insight into the multiple angles of any thought process. David Harrison, chair of the linguistics department at Swarthmore Collage and co-founder of the nonprofit Living Tounges Institute for Endangered Languages, states: “Different languages provide distinct pathways of thought and frameworks for thinking and solving problems.”

Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Center, states “Every language has its own take on the world. One language is not simply a different set of words for the same things.”

In addition to the above uses, Andrew Woodfield, director for the Center for Theories of Language and Learning, suggests that people do not even know all the ways in which linguistic diversity is influential and important.

“The fact is, no one knows exactly what riches are hidden inside the less-studied languages… We have inductive evidence based on past studies of well-known languages that there will be riches, even though we do not know what they will be. It seems paradoxical but it’s true. By allowing languages to die out, the human race is destroying things it doesn’t understand,” Woodfield stated at a seminar on language conservation.

What is being done to reverse the endangerment?

Originally, the preservation of languages was left up to the native speakers, but in recent years, linguists and other interested individuals have created organizations in order to revitalize the dying tongues.

The Alaska Native Language Center was one of the first known efforts to salvage the original languages. The center works with documentation, attempting to record and write words of native speakers. They also support holding bilingual education, so the dying languages can be taught to younger generations. Other areas around the globe have begun immersion programs in order to revive languages among the younger generations.

From the political angle, the United Nations has declared language maintenance a human right, and UNESCO is creating a “Red Book” of endangered languages. The Foundation for Endangered Languages has become increasingly involved in politics, protesting language policies and pushing for change.

In Conclusion: Out of the world’s 6,500 languages, it is predicted that 50-90 percent of them will be extinct by the end of this century. Recently, language conservationists have begun to fight back, by enforcing bilingual schools, working with legislation to relieve pressure on indigenous speakers and observing indigenous speakers in order to capture their language before it dies with them. Hopefully, with the efforts being made to record, preserve and teach endangered languages, our culturally heterogeneous society will remain multilingual for years to come.

Sources: BBC, Whole Earth Catalog, PBS, Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Photo: Language Diversity


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