Across the globe, languages evolve, grow, and die off like living organisms, carrying with them stories unique to the cultures they represent.
It may seem strange to view something as ethereal as language as a living thing — this is because many of us take our own for granted, and are unaware of the intricacies between dialects that are being lost over time in favor of popular tongues.
According to linguistic experts, thousands of languages are endangered, many having vanished already and others well on the road to extinction:
- Over the past century around 400 languages have gone at extinct – a rate of about one every three months.
- Linguists estimate that between 50 and 90 percent of the world’s remaining 6,500 languages will be gone by the end of the century.
Why it’s happening
An endangered language is classified as such by the number and age of speakers, and whether the youngest generations acquire it fluently.[contextly_sidebar id=”AEGPQVxfXQ2sGSVHHP4UdhXEFCm195EC”]Typically, these are spoken by less than 10,000 speakers or less, as opposed to top languages’ 50 million speakers each. If it has no more native speakers, it is a dead language, and if no one speaks it at all, it is extinct.
Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists 576 languages as critically endangered, with thousands more endangered or threatened. Virtually all minority languages in North America are endangered, but Australia holds the record in proportion to population.
Though throughout time languages have lived and died, like humans, animals, cities and artifacts, an accelerated rate of language loss today can be attributed to a variety of factors.
- Globalization and development: Economically powerful languages (English, French, Chinese, and Spanish) dominate others as their geopolitical influence crosses borders and seas
- Linguicide: Native speakers decline to teach their children their ethnic tongue as a first language, or do not teach it at all. This may be in part due to the economic and social stigma attached to minority languages
- Literacy: Many languages that are spoken and not written are considered illegitimate, leading to their endangerment
- Urbanization and displacement: When populations move — whether by force or choice — and leave their homelands, they leave parts of their language and culture behind to adapt to the new linguistic landscape and assimilate into a new culture.
Why it matters
A minority of linguists are content to let languages run their course, as others have in the past, but overall it is generally considered harmful to cultural diversity when languages whither away.
Languages, according to the BBC, are “conduits of human heritage.” It makes sense, therefore, that just as we strive to save species and the earth, we attempt to preserve tongues that are semantically representative of unique histories and cultures, interpretations of the world, and capabilities of the human mind.
Some endangered languages have words completely unique to their culture, and together contain within them an accumulated body of knowledge that documents all aspects of the world from a huge variety of perspectives.
This body of knowledge and history shrinks when languages die, the BBC argues.
The future of language
Today, a variety of revitalization programs are attempting to preserve endangered languages, and in case of their demise, document and archive them.
Among revitalization programs are educational efforts that ensure the language is passed down to younger generations, and even apps and computer programs devoted to strengthening minority languages.
Even so, global development will likely continue to whether down the mass of languages coloring the diversity of human life. In the future, it is predicted that languages will be both fewer and simpler.
The benefit is that more people will be able to communicate easily, and according to some, may contribute to economic and health benefits for all. Unfortunately, this won’t come without some cultural sacrifice and homogenization.