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Half of the world’s languages could be endangered. Why should we care?

Resígaro, Mudburra and Jedek. Heard of these Peruvian, Australian and Malaysian languages? Maybe, maybe not. But they have one thing in common. They’re endangered, with approximately only 373 speakers of these languages still among us. It’s estimated that half of the world’s languages could be endangered and that languages could go extinct at a rate of one language every month this century.

So what’s the big deal about language loss? Why is it happening and should we care?

Language endangerment is a complex issue. Causes can be varied, including greater access to education, migration from rural to urban areas and even climate change. In some countries where there are a few dominant languages and many smaller regional languages, people can feel pressure to neglect their native tongue and adopt the national language. This shedding of their culture is a proud moment for them because it signifies a kind of progression. They’re no longer speaking a language limited to several hundred people, but are now on the same level as millions of others in their country.

Some families, perhaps recently emigrated, have prohibited the speaking of their native language at home as an attempt to assimilate in their new country and to give the children what they perceive to be an opportunity of a better life. In the United States, for example, Spanish has often been looked down upon as a language. Kids would get told off and punished at school if they were heard speaking it. Even today, 22% of Latinos in the United States say they have been criticized in public for speaking Spanish. That percentage is even greater for second generation Latinos, 28% of whom say they been criticized for speaking Spanish.

Spanish, of course, is in no danger of endangerment but it does serve as a model. Some languages can be demonized and made to feel inferior. For those wanting the best for their children, parents may feel that passing their native language on isn’t in their best interests.

Padaung woman of Myanmar

But is language loss really an issue? One argument goes as follows: Having so many small languages encourages isolation, not assimilation. If you decide to remain a speaker of your own language, you miss out on the economic benefits enjoyed by the majority language speakers. This argument has its flaws. What’s stopping people from doing both? Continue to speak your own language and learn the language of the majority.

Also languages, however small they are, are important to preserve for many reasons. If we continue to lose languages, we lose diversity. Diversity exposes us to new ideas and ways of thinking, and encourages innovation and progress. Another reason is because of what a language contains. Many oral traditions have been passed down generation to generation. If we lose a language, we lose a part of human history. We also lose knowledge and experience. UNESCO has reported on how local environmental knowledge can be embedded in a language. For example an Amazonian Tribe in Peru stopped speaking their native language, and this had direct negative consequences on the diversity of crops they grew. Many indigenous languages have key words or sayings that contain vital information on how to survive local conditions – for example, the harsh desert environments of Western Australia. And speaking several languages is good for the brain.

In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, the Sare language became extinct as the last person to speak it passed away in 2020. Many people are mourning not only the loss of the person, but also the loss of the language. The indigenous inhabitants of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are said to have descended from peoples of the earliest migrations out of Africa some 50,000 – 70,000 years ago. The islands have been relatively untouched for thousands of years, until modern times of course, preserving key insights into ways of life and languages of our earliest ancestors.

Indigenous Cambodian woman

One may think that when a language becomes extinct as in the case of Sare, it is lost forever. Languages actually can be brought back to life. A well-known case is the Native American Wampanoag language. In the 1600s it was spoken by thousands of people. By the 1800s, following the settlement and encroachment of native lands by Europeans, it was extinct. Fragments of the language remained in texts and other languages that borrowed Wampanoag’s words. Remarkably a linguist, Jesse Little Doe Baird, worked on bringing Wampanoag back to life, determining its grammatical structures and creating a Wampanoag-English dictionary. Baird spoke to her young daughter in Wampanoag and she has become the first native speaker of the language in 7 generations.

Various organizations and volunteer groups are tackling language loss. The simplest methods are very effective such as volunteer projects that teach children endangered languages during or after school. Universities are offering language courses outside of the
traditional French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Arabic mix. Organizations and groups are also being creative about it. Wikitongues.org has a Language Sustainability Toolkit that gives advice on documenting and promoting your language. Mushroom 11, a puzzle-platform mobile game, added Inuktitut and Algonquin as language selections in 2019. And there’s The Mother Language Meme Challenge. This campaign encourages people to create memes in their mother tongue and share it on social media.

Languages are increasingly endangered, but with concerted efforts to understand their value and preserve them, the loss can be slowed down and even reversed.

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