MADELEINE RAJTOVÁ discusses the importance of language loss in modern society.
Although there are 195 countries in the world, the number of spoken languages is significantly higher. Today 7,139 languages exist, but this is by no means a constant number. Ethnologue rates around 40% of those languages to be endangered, as they often have less than 1,000 speakers left. In fact, 97% of the population speak only 4% of those languages – 3% of the population speak the other 96% (UNESCO). This is an alarming ratio, but what is even more alarming, is that according to National Geographic, a language dies every two weeks. It is estimated that 50-90% of the world’s languages will have disappeared by the next century.
Survival of the fittest languages
One example is the Eyak language that used to be spoken in southern Alaska, before its last native speaker, Marie Smith Jones, died. Unfortunately, due to lack of Eyak fluency with younger generations, the language died out. To preserve the language, she worked together with linguists to compile a dictionary and grammar, now it depends on the people and their will to learn and to resurrect the Eyak language.
But how do languages disappear? Linguist David Crystal names some of the causes that can lead to the extinction of a language. These include natural disasters that wipe out whole populations, genocide or cultural assimilation as a consequence of colonialism.
Is English killing other languages?
Colls cites the French linguist Hagege who claims that English may kill most of the languages if we disregard how it is progressing. According to Ethnologue, English is the language that counts the most speakers, next to Mandarin Chinese, Hindi and Spanish. However, whilst English is spoken in 146 countries, , only one quarter of those speakers are native speakers, the rest are people who acquired English as a second language. Malik, an Indian-born British writer, calls the acquisition of a world language like English or Spanish a “ticket to modernity”. He is convinced that most languages do not simply die out, instead people choose to learn a world language and abandon their native one in order to have a better life.
But abandoning your native language to have a better future goes hand in hand with losing a piece of your own identity. The effects of this pressure cannot be left disregarded. Ethnologue editor Lewis states that “if people begin to think of their language as useless, they see their identity as such as well.” He also explains that if parents stop teaching their children their native language, family ties are broken and traditions are lost. In many cases this leads to “social disruption, depression, suicide and drug use” and this exactly what is happening on the Navajo Reservation in the United States. Hernandez reveals that American Indians and Alaskan Natives are most affected by depression and suicide compared to other ethnic groups in the US. She states that the reasons for this are “cultural identity and self-perception”, “chronic stressors” and “integrational trauma”. So, the “ticket to modernity” might be considered as something positive by many people. But what is the price they are paying? And can we really talk about a free choice if the other option does not offer a liveable future?
What do we win when a language is lost?
This may seem like a paradox, but Malik does indeed claim that the fewer languages we have, the easier life will be. This is because for him, language has only one purpose – communication. The writer goes as far as to say that languages spoken by only a few are barely languages themselves, instead they are more like a “child’s secret code”. Therefore, if a language does not fulfil its only purpose, it does not matter if it becomes extinct. He does not consider, however, that even if it is spoken by only a small number of people, it does fulfil this purpose within the community of those people. And since according to Colls, languages are “living, breathing organisms holding the connections and associations that define a culture” that culture will be lost as soon as the language is lost.
On the other hand, Malik states that “the more universally we can communicate, the more dynamic our cultures will be”, which suggests the countless cultures our world includes are not accessible to most of the population because of communication barriers. Hence if everyone was speaking the same language it would be easier to familiarise oneself will all the existing cultures.
Most linguists are convinced that language is much more than just a means of communication. Nettle and Romaine (2000) state that “languages are intimately connected with humans, our cultures and our environment” and therefore language cannot be simply regarded as a means to an end. Crystal compares languages to animals or plants that are dying out and says that when a language is lost our planet loses “intellectual and cultural diversity”.
What about native speakers who are uninterested in keeping their language alive?
Of course, the increasing importance of global languages in our society elicits a lot of pressure and demands people to learn these languages. But an interesting question is why so many people decide to give up their bilingualism, as speaking one language does not automatically exclude the possibility of speaking another language. If parents decide that their native language is not useful for their children, they decide over their heads without offering them an option. Crystal explains that using the native language is often accompanied by shame. What if it only needs a change of perspective? Would it make a difference if all the bilingual people who still speak their native language found pride in it?
Written by Madeleine Rajtová
Nettle, S. & Romaine, S. (2000). Vanishing voices: The extinction of the world’s languages. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press.