In the future, how will languages converge and influence each other, and will the world one day end up with one single global language?
For my second round of research, I will continue to search for an answer to my question by researching which languages are currently “going out of style” or dying, and what exactly people are doing about it (ex. rehabilitation programs for languages).
Now, in my last post, I discussed and researched languages that are currently extinct, and explained the categories of language. I’m not going to fully reiterate what I last talked about but there were four categories of languages that are currently going extinct: vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered and critically endangered.
There are only about 80 languages in the world of the over 6000 different languages, that have more than 10 million speakers, and it is estimated that 95% of the world’s languages have less than one million native speakers. Out of those, on average there are approximately 6000 speakers of each language.
The reasons for languages going extinct are the same, or similar for those that are completely extinct already. There are four main reasons that a language might be decreasing in popularity or going extinct. These are natural disasters, famine and disease; war and genocide; overt repression for national unity (which includes forcible resettlement); and cultural, political or economic dominance. Language death is becoming more rapid and immediate with today’s increased migration and urbanization which brings a loss of traditional ways and pressure to speak the dominant language. Often speaking the dominant language is perceived as necessary for full civic participation and proper economic advancement.
Some of the biggest countries and ethnicities from which dying languages are surfacing, are Papua New Guinea, the Andaman Islands, Tasmania, Brazil’s indigenous peoples, El Salvador, Wales, the Kurds, Native Americans, Ainu, Manx, Sorbian and Native Peruvian languages like Quechua.
Language Revitalization Initiatives:
There are many projects and initiatives for language revitalization, but these are the biggest:
- The Hans Rausing Endangered Language Project
- Funds documentation projects; maintains an archive of
recordings, transcriptions and metadata; and runs an academic programme to train linguists and researchers
- Funds documentation projects; maintains an archive of
- The Volkswagen Foundation’s sponsorship of the DoBeS (Dokumentation Bedrohter Sprachen) Project
- The US National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) Documenting Endangered Languages initiative (DEL)
- A multi-year effort to preserve records of languages before they go extinct
- The European Science Foundation Better Analyses Based on Endangered Languages programme (EuroBABEL)
- ‘To promote empirical research on underdescribed endangered languages, both spoken and signed’
- The Chirac Foundation for Sustainable Development and Cultural Dialogue Sorosoro programme
- The World Oral Literature Project based at Cambridge University
Some smaller but still notable non-profit organizations are the Foundation for Endangered Languages and the Endangered Languages Fund.
On top of the organizations specifically for language revitalization, the UN also has several policy papers and guidelines for governmental action plans. These are on the UNESCO website under safeguarding ‘intangible
Language revitalization is different from language preservation because these languages are still alive just spoken by a very small number of people, therefore the point of the revitalization is to help the language grow rather than exist.
The easiest way to increase the speaking population of the language is to teach it to children, so part of language revitalization programs is often to create educational systems that promote the land’s native language and collaboration between linguistics and community members to (if there isn’t one already) develop a writing system, and to introduce proper instruction of the language at school. Another thing that is often needed, are national policies that recognize and protect at-risk languages. It is necessary to create a positive community around the language, one that encourages and respects multilingualism, especially the speaking of the country or group’s native tongue, both socially and politically. For those languages so far gone that although revitalization is attempted, extinction is approaching, the linguists start implementing preservation methods. These methods are generally technology-based by recording the language as much as possible to have physical evidence of it and to facilitate some of its context and rules, or by making phone apps for the people who speak the language that allows them to try and create a lasting imprint of it.
Why is language revitalization important?
You have the information, you have the definitions, but… why? What’s so wrong with just letting these dying languages die out?
Well, there are many reasons, some sentimental, some scientific, and all important.
The main reasons why language revitalization is important, or why languages going extinct are bad, are their importance to linguistic science, their cultural heritage, their effect on ecology, their importance to identity and the educational benefits of learning in your mother-tongue.
Firstly: their value to linguistic science. All languages are important to linguistic science as linguistic science is the study of languages, but languages going extinct makes it very difficult for them to be studied. Up until recently, the death and creation of languages were seen as a natural cycle, but the rapidity of which linguistics is changing nowadays means that if the new ways of speaking and communicating aren’t recorded as they happen, future generations may not know of their existence. But again, why does it matter if they don’t know? It all comes back to the point of linguistic science, which is to figure out how language works, and further, how the mind works in relation to communication. As proven on so many occasions (gender bias in medicine has resulted in therapies not necessarily working on women, and racial biases in the tech industry have led to facial recognition technology not being as reliable for POC), if not all variations and subjects are tested, the results won’t be accurate. In this vein, it is necessary to document all languages, including those going extinct, to understand the extent of language variation and its effects on culture and people. Furthermore, the better and more language functions are understood, the more prepared we will be to improve help for communication disorders and language teaching. Having a wider range of knowledge about languages also contributes to technological advancements, as research on sound patterns is used for speech synthesis software and models of grammatical structure help to develop the linguistic pieces of AI. Understanding language provides invaluable insight into cognition and how the brain develops and organizes information, all of which can only be further refined by documenting more languages and sustaining and rehabilitating disappearing languages.
Languages’ effects on cultural heritage, ecology, and identity are all points that can be combined. Cultural diversity is tied very closely with linguistic diversity. Two cultures from the same place, with similar backgrounds but different languages, are often drastically different. As languages diminish, large parts of culture disappear as well, leading to missing opportunities, traditions, memory and unique ways of thinking and expression. Furthermore, many biological scientists and ecolinguists have identified correlations between linguistic and cultural diversity, and biological diversity. For example, places such as Papua New Guinea and Indonesia have both a very high number of different languages and biological species, whereas Europe has the fewest of both. Finally, language is a huge part of people’s ethnic and national identity, and so when a language is lost, so too is a sense of self and self-understanding.
The last point is that there are many educational benefits to learning in your mother-tongue. No, this doesn’t mean that learning a second language or going to a, say, French immersion school is bad. What it means is when you go to school, learning solely in a language that you don’t understand is bad. For many young children that are native speakers of small or dying languages, the rest of the world around them will be in a different language, including their schooling which will impair them from reaching their full potential. This is called subtractive bilingualism and can cause a loss of self-esteem and lower achievement. To truly help children from minority languages to accomplish their full educational and economic potential, their native tongue should be supported, which comes with language revitalization.