World’s Languages Are Fast Disappearing


By Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

April 25, 2002

Hundreds of languages have gone the way of the do-do bird, and thousands more are in the precarious position of the spotted owl. Many more cannot even be mourned, since, like countless species, they have evolved and vanished without leaving any record of their existence.

According to Unesco's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing, a language is considered endangered when it is no longer spoken by children, moribund when only a handful of elderly speakers are left, and extinct when it is no longer spoken. The numbers vary by source, but even the most optimistic estimates are alarming, with half of the world's languages struggling to survive. Some sources declare 5,000 of the 6,000 total in some state of endangerment.

The motivations for language preservation range from the obvious to the delightfully esoteric. Language embodies the spectrum of human vision, and its varieties provide unparalleled insights into the diversity of human experience and perception, while the consistencies expose the unchanging kernel across cultures.

In the realm of pure brain science, linguists fear that the disappearance of languages — including entire language families — could undermine the discipline's efforts to assess the limits and possibilities of linguistic cognition. Even the unlikely field of botany feels the threat of language endangerment; scientists have relied on the vocabulary of Australian Aboriginal languages to research the area's ancient plant life.

Others approach the issue from a human rights perspective. Doug Whalen, Vice President of Haskins Laboratories at Yale, moonlights as president of the Endangered Language Fund, which raises funds for language preservation and revival.

Whalen believes language preservation is crucial "because it recognizes people's right to determine their own fate. It helps preserve a record of the value system that's intrinsic to any language. Any culture can be expressed in any language in some way, but the native language is most efficient." Language does not merely represent a culture, but is its own contribution to that culture. Vocabulary, greetings, oral traditions, poetry, and humor are the substance of culture, not just vessels of communication.

There are various reasons for language endangerment. Sometimes entire linguistic communities are wiped out, as in the European colonization of the Americas. In the more recent past, there has been legislation against minority languages in schools and the workplace, and intense governmental pressure to assimilate to the majority language.

One well-known example is the Russification agenda in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, in which children from minority populations were placed in Russian-only boarding schools, or internats, for nine months of the year, resulting in a loss of interest and fluency in the native language. In the U.S., English-only legislation has been prevalent, exemplified by California's Proposition 227, eliminating the state's bilingual education programs, passed in 1998.

In a 1997 article in Time International, James Geary compares the process to Darwinistic evolution gone awry. In linguistic natural selection, "the survival of the fittest is not by intrinsic merits and adaptability alone; the economic might, military muscle and cultural prestige of the country in which a language is spoken play a decisive role."

English, as the linguistic branch of the mighty American empire, has run rampant across the globe, in perhaps the most insidious form of linguistic imperialism: seduction. People want to speak English, because it is the language of advertising, blockbuster movies and pop music, as well as a vital tool for success.

Is the ubiquity of English a threat to other languages? Though English has a reputation as the "killer language," says Doug Whalen, he doesn't think so. It's "certainly the most successful lingua franca we've ever seen," he says.

As such, it may even help to preserve some minority languages, because speakers can use English to communicate with more powerful neighbors while maintaining primary use of their native language. Whalen believes that regional languages may actually pose a larger threat than international ones, since they're more likely to replace the minority language as a native tongue. In 1997 Time International outlined what regional languages are in danger: Europe: The Celtic languages of Britain, Ireland and Brittany in France; several Lappish languages in Scandinavia; various Romani (Gypsy) tongues, and numerous indigenous languages in the former Soviet Union; Africa: Many small tribal languages including the Khoisan language group; Asia: Regional languages in the Xinjiang and Yunnan provinces; minority languages in Nepal and Malaysia; and Ainu, in the Japanese area of Hokkaido.

Many efforts are underway to reverse the trend of language disappearance. These include adult classes for those who never learned their culture's language, and "language nests" for children in instances of "generation-skipping."

In New Zealand, an aboriginal Maori-speaking community established Kohanga Reo (language nests) in 1982. In these cultural oases, young children are steeped in the language, spoken by a paid staff of elderly native speakers and younger teachers. Largely due to the proliferation of these nests, which cultivate a cozy, playful atmosphere, the language has rebounded.

A complementary approach to language preservation, though more pessimistic, is complete documentation. This is difficult in the many cases of indigenous languages that have no written form. In such cases, records depend heavily on the use of video and audio tape.

What about the future of language preservation? Whalen predicts "small successes. I know that we're creating lots of records that are of great use to people. There are lots of cases of ethnic pride that haven't been feasible in the past." On the other hand, he echoes the resigned sigh that environmentalists must heave in the face of ever-accelerating destruction of species. "We'll continue to lose languages. There's an inevitability about it."

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