Language extinction is a slow but sure process. I have always been intrigued by that sad reality. This was rekindled after I watched a performance of Lena Herzog’s “Last Whispers” at the Kennedy Center, DC yesterday.

A three-part immersive audio/visual/virtual reality oratorio on extinct and endangered languages, “Last Whispers” is a composition of both spoken and sung recordings of about 40 extinct and endangered languages among which:

  1. Ahom, China
  2. Ayoreo, Paraguay
  3. Bathari, Oman
  4. Lxcatec, Mexico
  5. Dalabon, Australia
  6. Great Andamanese, India
  7. Ingrian, Russia
  8. Kotiria, Brasil
  9. Koyukon, Alaska
  10. Ongota, Ethiopia

That presentation reawakened the reality of endangered languages and I couldn’t help but reflect on the causes and effects of the gradual disappearance of our linguistic diversity.

The reality of language endangerment and extinction

According to National Geographic, 1 language dies every 14 days and based on that trend, UNESCO predicts that almost half of the about 7,000 languages spoken on earth are expected to disappear by the next century. The catalog of endangered languages of UNESCO's Endangered Languages Project indicates that there are about 3000 endangered languages in 180 countries. As communities abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, Spanish, 3000 of the world’s 7000 languages have fewer than 10,000 speakers and are in danger of extinction while over 400 are on the verge of extinction. The Amazon rain-forest, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, Australia and Southeast Asia are expected to lose the most languages. The explore language map on this link is a vivid representation of the severity of language extinction.

Major causes of language extinction

Knowledge of, and fluency in a language is largely dependent on one’s environment and education. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, remote languages are losing their hitherto protection, in favor of languages that dominate world communication and commerce like Mandarin, English, Russian, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic. Languages of limited diffusion cannot stand the competition with languages that represent education and overall success. Some languages are even associated with a lower social class and prestige thereby reducing the interest in learning them. 

Climate change, urbanization and the quest for better lives force linguistically diverse rural communities to migrate and assimilate to new communities, cultures and languages. Their original languages are lost in the process.

Lack of preservation is another cause for language endangerment or extinction. Most remote languages remain unwritten and consequently, unpreserved and 85% of languages in general, are yet to be documented. When the transfer of a language to younger generations is discontinued, languages are bound to die with the passing of older members of the community.

Another proven factor is political persecution. Dozens of distinct dialects for example, are on the verge of extinction about half a century after China annexed Tibet.

Effects of language extinction

Oral traditions and expressions are used to convey knowledge, beliefs, arts, value systems, laws, custom, traditions and modes of life. Language and culture are, therefore, integral parts of a community's shared cultural heritage. In extension, language and culture are believed to be the footprints of our identity.

The loss of a language is a loss of cultural and social values as well as identity and the potential for diversity. With every dying language goes the knowledge of, and ability to understand the culture of its speakers.

Because speakers of smaller languages generally live in proximity to nature, an endangered or extinct language also has a direct effect on the transfer of traditional and biodiversity knowledge across generations.

Can we preserve our endangered linguistic ecosystem?

The forces of endangerment or extinction seem stronger than our efforts, but there are ways to curb, halt or stop the sometimes-inevitable process. 

Preservation through translation, cataloging, documenting and storing available information and resources both in audio and visual forms will go a long way in saving endangered languages. The role of technology in this process cannot be over-emphasized. Fortunately, we have the internet and a myriad of platforms and media at our disposal: online classes, podcasts, dictionaries, YouTube, the TV, the media and the list goes on.

Wikitongues, The Endangered Language Fund and Cultural Survival are examples of great initiatives in that direction. 

Promoting and teaching younger generations will go a long way in preserving and revitalizing languages.

The will and determination of the language communities and the pride they have for their languages, cultural heritage and identity are contributing factors to language preservation.

On a larger scale, when the language, culture and identity of minority-speaker communities are respected by national governments, languages of limited diffusion have a better potential for survival. The promotion of bi or multi-bilingualism through individual and national efforts have proven successful in various regions.

The solutions may not be stand-alone or promising, but mankind can try, just like we do with trees and nature in general.

Written by 

Freelance French-English translator.

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