Languages Are Dying Rapidly; Thousands Are Expected to Extinct in This Century

by Jake Gladwell

On 7th January 2013, Ms. Ouma Aenki Kassie, one of the last speakers of N|uu language died in Upington South Africa. At the time of her death, it means that there were only seven N|uu language speakers in the world. N|uu is one of the languages that were listed as critically endangered and the language is at the point of total extinction.

The case of N|uu is a reflection of the various languages that are dying rapidly. While we might think language extinction does not affect us, it has a great influence on our art, science, and culture. So, it definitely has an impact on all of us indirectly. If a language becomes lost, not only will the cultural heritage become lost but also the traditional knowledge that is associated with the culture such as the use of medicinal herbs and the environment. There are different communities that preserve the environment due to its perceived significance. As the saying goes, a language lost is a soul lost. If a language becomes lost, humanity will be affected in different ways.

Languages are Dying

It is approximated that there are about 7 billion people in the world. These people speak about seven thousand languages. The linguists on their side have pointed out that by 2100 50% of the languages will become extinct. This data also shows one language dies out after every fourteen days.

An endangered language is like plant or animal species that are on the brink of extinction. UNESCO highlights that a language is termed as endangered when the parents stop teaching the language to their children and the language is not used in daily conversations. It is also considered nearly extinct when it is spoken by few elderly people.

Oral Traditions as a Cultural Heritage

Oral traditions which involve the use of language are part of cultural heritage. Rhymes, legends, myths, charms, prayers, dramatic performances and many more are part of our cultural heritage. The only way through which they can be passed on to the next generation is through the word of mouth. Languages come to life through telling stories, riddles, and the songs that we listen to every day.

Oral traditions are a good way of preserving language rather than the use of databases and dictionaries. Some languages are spoken by only a few people. The death of the people who talk in that language causes the death of the language itself, which can lead to the loss of oral traditions for a particular community.

Not a new Phenomenon

We cannot come out and say that death of languages is something that has taken place overnight. The communities are always shifting to different languages that are more powerful politically and economically.

Urbanization has also led to the death of the local languages. People move from their rural areas to the urbanized regions to earn a living. As a way of making sure one can communicate with people as they carry out their activities, they will have to adopt a language that is used by more people. The adoption of the language means that it will be difficult for them to pass on their mother tongue to their children.

English is one of the dominant languages of the internet and there are many people who use English as their second language or third language as compared to the people who are native English speakers or use English as their mother tongue. While this looks good, the use of English language has been recently blamed for the high rates of extinction of languages.

It is also estimated that more than 3 billion people - almost half of the world's population - speak or use one out of around 20 languages as their mother tongue. Of course to the native speakers of the 20 languages, these would be great news, but what of the other 7,000 languages that are spoken worldwide? Should they still be used, and do they have a future, or they are at the verge of being extinct? These are some of the difficult questions we should asking ourselves each day we use language.

Efforts to Revive Languages

About 7 years ago, Daniel Kaufman launched the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA) to help document and revitalize some of the languages that were becoming extinct. So far, the organization has already worked with over 60 different languages. The work involves actively working with communities that use the language. The process also involves making sure that the language is documented as fast as possible before the speakers are gone.

The Living Tongues Institute, founded by Dr. Gregory Anderson, promotes the documentation and revitalization efforts of the endangered languages worldwide. Initiatives to revive the endangered languages include the digital ‘talking dictionaries’ that contains documentation of languages such as Koro Aka.

Culture of Resistance Network also focuses on transmitting cultural identity of the communities that are almost becoming extinct through education. Traditions about the various aspects of the communities are passed on to the next generation through cultural events and education.

There are also efforts that are made by individual linguists to revive languages through the use of audiotapes, videotapes, and written books. Dictionaries on the languages have also been published and preserved. There are also other simple forms such as Sirayan language that is available in the form of Bible which is the Gospel of Mathew. This will ensure that even though the language disappears, the knowledge that is associated with the language will not vanish.

In 2012, Google launched Endangered Language Project which made great efforts of reviving languages that were at a great risk of extinction. The aim of the project is to compile information on research that has been done on the languages that are becoming extinct. It also serves as a forum where linguists can meet to discuss on the ways through which languages which are almost becoming extinct can be revived.

The dominance of languages such as English and Spanish are threatening the survival of 54 indigenous languages that are used in Northwest Pacific plateau of North America. There is only one person who is remaining who uses Siletz-Dee-ni, which is one of the last languages used in Oregon region.

Hebrew Language Was Revived from Extinction

Despite the above information, when a language dies, it does not mean that it will be forgotten forever. Efforts can be made to revive a language. Hebrew language was the only language to be revived by Zionists about a century ago who argued that they needed language that would unify them and create a territory for them.

There are also efforts that are being made to revive Cornish language that is used in Southwestern England. Ethnologue which is a standard guide for all the languages in the world has listed Cornish as one of the nine languages that are in the ‘awakening’ stage. The nine languages do not have native speakers but they rather have L2 speakers who have acquired or learned the language from friends and family. Recently, Cornwall has several people who are using Cornish in their conversations.

One of the striking things about Cornish language is that it did not have any native speakers or it was not used regularly for the past two centuries. This sets it apart from Manx which was the indigenous language that was used in Isle of Man. It was taken off the list of extinct languages by UNESCO, a cultural body that is an arm of UN. The last speaker of the language died in 1974 and there are efforts that are made to revive the language ever since.

The aspect of not being used for the past two centuries also distinguishes it from Hebrew which even though not used today, it was still used for almost 2,000 years. It was used as a language of communication while carrying out activities such as studies, commerce, and literature.

If Cornish can re-establish itself without the intervention of religion or the state, then it means that other languages too that are coming extinct can be revived. It requires effort and determination by a group of people to revive languages that are extinct.

The rate at which the languages are becoming extinct is so alarming yet there are few people who are taking efforts to make sure languages are not becoming extinct. As shown previously, the loss of language is the loss of culture of a particular community. In our own ways, we can also do all we can to make sure our languages still remain relevant. We can pass the language to the next generation through holding cultural events and teaching the kids about our language. The government on its side should also formulate policies that will recognize the cultures of languages that are becoming distinct. It can be achieved through education given that the government controls education.

More about language death and revival

A study of language death and revival with a particular focus on Manx Gaelic (A dissertation by Simon Ager)
Disappearing Languages (A blog post by Simon Ager)


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