One language dies every two weeks. There are nearly 6,800 languages on our earth (give or take 200), and by 2100, experts predict that more than half of them will become extinct. Many of these languages are not yet recorded; they are passed down by one generation to the next, that is IF the new generation is even interested. Yet when a language dies, a culture dies: we lose the history, experience and behavior of that culture.
We all understand the concept of endangered and existing animal species, but we do not think about extinct languages. We do not think about human extinction – we have dominated the earth for so long. Yet this is exactly what we are talking about here. How so?
Language allows speakers to articulate unique concepts and ideas. Language defines what people talk about and how they talk about it. Language is a reflection of their reality and values and rules, and I think all of us can agree that cultures have very different realities one to the next.
Think about how your language gives voice to your culture. Everyone has heard that there are many words in Alaskan languages for snow; Alaskans live in a world of snow and as such, their language reflects that culture’s interaction with the environment.
One example is that our language is full of terminology and concepts around technology. Our language is full of sports metaphors, too. You can well imagine that an African language (a long-tail language as we call them) might not have these concepts showing up in their language.
Let’s look closer at an example of a loss of history and culture: botanical knowledge. Indigenous groups have cohabited with the natural world for thousands of years. Because of this, they have significant insights into flora and fauna, local geography, and ecosystems. It makes sense that studying indigenous languages can influence medical advances, understanding of animal behavior, environmental issues and even conservation efforts. But someone has to go learn that language and interact with the people: many of the insights revealed through language are not yet documented by science.
There are several reasons why languages may die.
- Powerful groups have imposed their languages on speakers of less-common languages. Official regional language policies and politics can influence language extinction. Many countries have official languages of business. People fluent in that official language may historically have had more prestige. This may explain why Europe, where there is a long history of imperial power, has less language diversity than say Bolivia.
- Children learn the dominant language and may reject their historical one. For example, the children of Basque immigrants to the US did not want to learn Basque; they wanted to blend in. Children in many cultures no longer learn their native and historical language.
- Languages are geographically isolated from other cultures and languages (think of the vast regions of Brazil, where indigenous languages may be spoken within a very small tribe and not outside of it). When that tribe shrinks in size, there may simply be no one to pass that language on to.
There are at least three organizations which focus on saving world languages.
This language-learning software producer founded its Endangered Language Program in 2004. They collaborate with indigenous groups around the world to develop language-learning software designed to help revitalize these at-risk languages.
As articulated on their website: Through grants provided by Rosetta Stone, children of the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana and children attending Navajo Nation schools throughout Arizona, New Mexico and Utah are now learning their heritage language using Rosetta Stone software. Other languages which have corresponding language program software include:
- Inupiaq – Alaska
- Inuttitut – Nain, NL
- Mokawk, Kahnawake Mohawk Territory (SE Canada, just north of US border)
- Navajo, Window Rock, AZ
To read more about Rosetta Stone, visit http://www.rosettastone.com/about
Enduring Voices (National Geographic)
National Geographic’s Enduring Voices program has developed Talking Dictionaries. These give us a chance to hear some of the most esoteric and mysterious sounds in human speech. Collaborating communities work with National Geographic to record their language to be shared online. Through these, “you will encounter fascinating and beautiful sounds – forms of human speech you’ve never heard before – and through them, get a further glimpse into the rich diversity of culture and experience that humans have created in every part of the globe.”
The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
This non-profit uses donations to “preserve valuable information for future generations in the specialized knowledge contained in endangered languages.” The donated funds help cover costs of field expeditions, publications, and assistance to indigenous communities struggling for cultural survival. Living tongues also work in collaboration with National Geographic on the Enduring Voices project.
You can even adopt a language at http://www.livingtongues.org/.
It is an exciting industry in which I work, because we all believe in the power of language; we all have a fascination for it. (And we even have bigger brains as you can read in one of my recent blogs). Many of my colleagues are bilingual and I have a number of colleagues who are quadrilingual. If knowing a language is knowing their culture, then knowing no languages other than the one you speak means we are isolated from the richness of other cultures and less of world citizen for that.