Language evolves. This should come as no surprise to anyone. We all know that many of the most common modern languages spoken throughout the world today have developed from earlier ancient languages. But what might come as more of a shock is that over the past century, hundreds of languages have become extinct.
In fact, linguists estimate that if languages continue to fall away at the current rate, by the year 2100, 50% of the world’s remaining 6,500 languages will disappear. But is this actually a problem? To answer this question, we should consider why languages are disappearing and what some of the additional consequences might be.
Why are languages disappearing?
Visit New York City and you could hear some 800 languages being spoken within a 10-mile radius. These languages represent more than 10 percent of languages spoken around the world. So, what would cause one of these languages to suddenly go extinct?
There are a whole host of reasons explaining why certain languages have disappeared throughout human history:
- Political persecution and deliberate suppression: For much of the 20th century, governments around the world imposed language on indigenous people. For example, some 100 aboriginal languages in Australia disappeared since European settlers first arrived. And some 50 years after China annexed Tibet, dozens of distinct dialects with with unique alphabets are currently on the edge of extinction.
- Climate change and urbanization: Oppression is no longer the biggest threat to language diversity, however. Most languages go extinct today because they become unviable for one reason or another. Linguistically diverse communities migrate and assimilate to new communities today at a rapidly increasing rate. For instance, in Greece, many agrarian communities have had their own languages for centuries. However, due to drought, the increasing dominance of corporate farms, and other economic factors, more of the children growing up in these remote villages choose to move away from the villages where they were raised to make permanent homes in Athens and other Greek cities. In this new environment, they have no real need for their native languages.
- The Internet: The claim that the Internet is contributing to languages going extinct is controversial. Arguably, the Internet can actually preserve rare languages making widely available tools like sharable databases of audio and video recordings (and maybe even provide opportunities for new languages to be invented). But we have to admit that these stats are troubling from the perspective of saving languages: of the 10 million most popular websites, 55.2 percent are in English. The only other languages to make much of a mark are French, German, Japanese, Russian and Spanish—ranging between four and 5.8 percent of those websites. Or consider Hindi. Spoken by some 310 million people worldwide and despite being the fourth most spoken native language, Hindi makes up only .1 percent of the 10 million most popular websites.
That languages are disappearing at a rate of one every two weeks is certainly disappointing from a cultural, historical, and diversity standpoint. “When humanity loses a language, we also lose the potential for greater diversity in art, music, literature, and oral traditions,” says Bogre Udell, Founder of Wikitongues. “Would Cervantes have written the same stories had he been forced to write in a language other than Spanish? Would the music of Beyoncé be the same in a language other than English?”
Consequences of Languages Disappearing
Beyond the historical value of preserving diversity in language, there are additional consequences and red flags that the loss of language should raise for us. For one thing, the loss of an entire language is a loss of a huge body of knowledge. Consider that not everything we know as a species gets written down. Each individual represents a body of local, specific knowledge, which if not passed down to our children, dies when the individual ceases to exist.
In addition to the loss of knowledge, the loss of endangered languages represents two strains of thought that we ought to reflect upon:
- What the loss of a language says to speakers of non-dominant languages more generally. If we easily allow languages to slip away, are we sending a message that we are willing to allow other artefacts of cultural significance fade away just as easily?
- What the loss of diversity says about our values more generally. How can a world that discourages diversity, whether linguistic, cultural, or biological, expect to survive? Just as on one individual has all of the answers, no one culture has all the answers.
Just as we ought to worry about the causes of the loss of diversity in crops and why certain animal species are becoming endangered, we ought to worry about why certain languages are disappearing around the world. Even if, in the end, we decide that these causes are not the biggest problems we have to worry about, we shouldn’t make this judgment before we have thoroughly considered the consequences.
Language Preserving Action Plans
Several linguistics, concerned citizens, and government officials have decided it’s time to take action. Here are just a few examples of big steps being taken to preserve rare and endangered languages around the world:
- Irish Language: The Irish Government recently launched a five-year “Action Plan” for the Irish Language that sets out 187 goals in nine areas including Education, preserving the Irish Language in the Gaeltacht (primarily Irish-speaking regions), Family Transmission of the Language, Services and Community, and Media and Technology. This plan includes measures such as setting up 42 new schools for Irish-medium education outside of the Gaeltacht.
- Austronesian Language of Biak: Linguistics professors at Oxford University collaborated with two universities on the Indonesian half of the island of Papua to create an online database of digital audio texts (including songs, stories, jokes, monologues, and conversations), annotated transcriptions, and translations for the language of Biak, a language with 50,000-70,000 speakers in Papua.
- Wikitongues seeks to create the first public archive of every language in the world: With a network of volunteers in 40 countries, Wikitongues is filming native speakers talking in the past, present, and future tenses of their mother tongues. Those being recorded are asked questions about their childhood, to talk about roman, and to discuss their hopes and goals. Starting this year, Wikitongues’ collection will be stored at the American Folklife Center in partnership with the Library of Congress. The founders also have plans to create an app allowing users to create dictionaries using text, audio, and video.
At DTS Language Services, Inc., we applaud the efforts of those working to preserve endangered languages around the world. Although our day-to-day work may be less ambitious, we take our services no less seriously. Whether you need a pharmaceutical document translated from Spanish to Farsi or a technical manual translated from English to Turkish, we’ll treat your project with care. Contact us today to request your FREE quote.