What are endangered languages, and how can we save them?

Endangered Languages

“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”

-Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Human language is a means of communication which is not witnessed to the same extent in much of the rest of the animal kingdom. It allows for an intimate understanding of each other, and enables an individual to express emotions that physical movement is incapable of conveying. Without language, our species would not be nearly as advanced as it is and, although some might point out that language is what has brought upon us conflict not experienced elsewhere, language has given us the opportunity to create, reminisce and plan.

We take language for granted; something so natural, an extension of our very selves, the idea of existing without alien and backward. Yet for many, languages include their history, way of life and a guide to their existence. It is generally believed that there are about 7000 languages currently being spoken but that up to 90% of these may be extinct by the end of the century.

A dead language is a loss; a moment in time and existence maybe, but a representation of a group of people, nonetheless. There are hundreds of millions of people who can’t read and write and for many of them, along with tribes and indigenous peoples, language is used to relay ancestry, history and means by which to live.

Moai statues on Easter Island.

There is a process through which languages become extinct. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation created a step-by-step process that followed the progress of a language disappearing.

The first stage is called ‘potential endangerment’ – the language continues to be passed onto younger generations despite strong external pressure. The second stage is called ‘endangerment’ – children no longer learn the language, and few remain to speak it. The third stage is ‘seriously endangered’ – unlikely to survive into the next generation and soon to be extinct. The fourth stage is called ‘moribund’ – only the oldest generations of speakers still speak the language. The final stage is called ‘extinction’ – the language is not used anymore and any ethnic associations with the language are no longer retained.

What is making languages so endangered? Why are they disappearing? For all our many forms and methods of communication, there is surprisingly little in the mainstream media to indicate how far along the problem is and what is being done about it. Dominant languages are far spread and stopping them from taking over other languages is very difficult. Many are spoken by tens of thousands of people, while a few, such as English, Mandarin and Urdu, are spoken by millions. Endangered languages include Irish Gaelic, Rapa Nui of Easter Island with just over 3000 speakers left, Krymchak, spoken in Crimea with an estimated 200 speakers left or Ainu, in Japan, with only 10 known speakers remaining.

There are a number of reasons that languages become endangered. Language is taught; for many that is in a school but for others, it is passed down within communities. Those who maintain the tradition tend to be the elders of those communities, but the younger members are increasingly drawn away by prospects of jobs or better living standards, leaving fewer people to pass the language on to. Younger people are also increasingly bilingual, learning the basics through radio, television and music.

As many languages are spoken through indigenous groups, tribal people and smaller communities, learning a dominant language, such as English or Spanish, gives younger people an opportunity to gain economic and social advancement. Younger people emigrating abroad may take their language with them and speak it for a while but eventually the local dominant language will take over, with future generations speaking that language in order to integrate.

Geography also plays its part. Some languages are restricted to a small island, such as the Rapa Nui Language of Easter Island, with its ever-decreasing population, or another language becomes dominant, perhaps due to trade, such as the gradual loss of Egyptian Coptic replaced by Arabic. Technology and media also play a role. Most TV shows are in dominant languages, like English or Spanish, often serving as language teachers in other countries. Technology enables people to communicate further abroad, often ending in other languages being adopted.

Climate change is another factor which has further endangered languages. Tribal people and indigenous groups have seen their lands deforested and used for industry, bringing them into closer contact with the larger population. Languages are, at times, deliberately diluted to help enforce eviction. Native American children were often taken away from their families and schooled in English and Christian values, thereby removing their participation in a traditional upbringing. Some languages have also been abandoned to avoid identification or association with them in order to survive persecution.

The preservation of languages is a daunting task. Time is not a luxury for many of these programs. Organisations like the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat) help to raise awareness of language loss. The World Oral Literature Project preserves the stories, songs, poems, chants and folk tales, showing the insight language can give to a culture, country or region. Other programs exist that are helping to re-introduce languages into the community.

Community-based approaches and models, such as the ‘language nest’, were created to help teach a language from a young age on a regular basis. Courses are altered to adapt to individual circumstances, such as for single mothers, enabling teaching to be included in childcare. This kind of work is expensive and requires significant funding, which becomes a bigger problem in regions that have multiple languages in a smaller area. Language camps, cultural workshops, festivals are all examples of events that can help to immerse a learner within the language as well as connecting with the traditional and cultural aspects.

While some activities like art and music are able to transcend language with their own meanings and emotions, language is what gives us a connection as human beings. In truth, we are becoming more of global community, the world is becoming smaller and the more people connect, the more likely it is that languages will die out. While persecution and climate change may be an issue, dominant languages are simply that: dominant. They are on the airwaves, sung by superstars, heard on the radio and in movies.

From an economic standpoint, business is often conducted in only a handful of languages, and being ‘successful’ often means communicating globally. Younger bilingual generations can also lead to a reduction in use of traditional languages. Endangered languages are part of a natural process as humans move and interact, yet there is something inherently sad about losing a language. It is the loss of a part of history, of our civilisation and of our species. The ability to generate different languages is unique to us. Preventing language loss is something we can all contribute to. Preserving languages is a race against time that deserves all the assistance it can get.

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