In the first part of this blog post, we looked at why it’s difficult to attach concrete numbers to language death but why it is still considered a problem that is only gathering speed. With the rise of the global economy, only a few handfuls of languages have become the dominant means of communication in all corners of the planet. Continued urbanisation means that people move to big cities, losing touch with their native languages, and switch to one of the “supercentral” languages used all over the globe. All of this means that most of the small languages still spoken today are expected to die out within the next couple of decades.
In this, second, part of the language death series, we look at the true scope of the problem, see if there is anything to be done to stop language death, and think about why we should care about the disappearance of obscure languages.
Don’t worry, it’s only getting worse
To understand the true scope of this problem, you only need to look at the number of languages experts estimate will die out by the end of the century.
The optimistic guess is that the mass extinction will include only half of the world’s languages. The pessimists fear that around 90% of those spoken today will have disappeared by the end of the century. All due to the rise in global trade and the effects that brings with it. Currently, the Ethnologue classifies 473 languages as nearly extinct (which makes up about 7% of the known languages) and over 1,500 with fewer than a thousand speakers.
Can anything stop language death?
The problem with the mass extinction of languages is that it’s driven by lifestyle changes. Up until a few centuries ago, the vast majority of the world’s population lived in small, close-knit communities, most of which had their own language. These days, more people live in cities than out of them and, with such a drastic change in lifestyle, small languages don’t have much chance.
The oft-quoted solution to language death would be to teach people about the benefits of being bilingual. Essentially, linguists want to remind people that although you can move to a big city, where you might need to learn Arabic, Hindi, or Portuguese for business and communication, you should still keep your native tongue alive at home and pass it on to your children.
However, the cold truth is that very few people can keep this line going for more than a couple of generations. Looking at various immigrant populations in the US, for example, will show how language death often occurs. First generation immigrants, who move to a new country as adults, are often monolingual and have a problem learning the native language of their new home country. Their children, the second generation, will mostly be bilingual, speaking the official language outside and their parents’ native language inside the house. The third generation will understand their grandparents’ tongue (with some difficulty) but will be mostly monolingual. And that’s where the trouble starts. The third generation, which is no longer comfortable with the original language, will not pass it on to their children, condemning it.
While this is certainly not the fate of all languages, this formula captures quite clearly how most small languages are thought to disappear in the next few decades.
The only thing left to do
So, there most likely is not a realistic solution to the problem of language death. The only thing left to do is try to collect as much data about the ones existing today so that we at least have something to remember them by, in order to stop all of their culture and history from being forgotten.
There are currently several large-scale projects aimed at doing just that – recording as much as possible of the most endangered languages, to preserve at least something of them for the upcoming generations.
Why should we care?
There are those who argue that language death is a completely natural part of evolution and we should simply enjoy those that are still around. And sure, there is certainly a point to be made there. A language is first and foremost a tool for communication and once there isn’t anyone to speak in a particular language, it might as well be dead.
However, there are also good counterpoints.
Languages record eons worth of human knowledge and culture. They are used to tell origin stories or myths, which capture and enrich the human existence. With every dead language, we lose a piece of the puzzle that is humanity. Even today, most of the world’s languages aren’t written down and their legends and historical knowledge are passed on from generation to generation only verbally.
Asking why we should care about losing these languages is similar to asking why we should care about the Canterbury Tales, anything written by Shakespeare, or Beowulf when we now have such awesome creations as Halo and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. While you yourself might not care about reading Hamlet, its existence is a conduit of human heritage and a reminder of the centuries we, as a species, have lived through.