By Peter Miljak
A language is a way of thinking, a record containing thousands of years of knowledge and history accumulated by a culture. Estimates place the number of languages spoken today between 6900 and 7000. That is 7000 unique perspectives on the world, 7000 rich histories and ways of life.
By 2100 this number is set to be cut by half. This is the equivalent to a language falling out of use every two weeks between now and the turn of the next century.
Currently in the midst of this language extinction there is debate as to whether there is even a problem at hand. In fact, many see language death as a positive, allowing for more effective communication in today’s global community; The world will stand more united if more us spoke the same language, right?
It is certainly undeniable that a speaker of an endangered language will have more opportunity to receive employment or formal education if they learnt the ‘prestige’ language of their area, but the destructive effect of language loss on communities is not often discussed.
Xi Jinping is among many world leaders that have celebrated the use of a common language as a uniting force for the citizens of the nation, and in response to the case of China, various NGO’s such as Amnesty International have called out the nation for using this rhetoric in order to repress minority groups across the country, particularly the Uyghur ethnic group in Xinjiang. Although this is a more radical example of language death, it demonstrates how the adoption of a dominant language is often intimately tied to cultural repression.
Australia is another perfect case study. For such a multicultural nation, Australia’s track record regarding language death is a global embarrassment. There are 231 Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia, and 90% of them are classified as ‘critically endangered’ by UNESCO, meaning that the youngest speakers of the language are grandparents, and overall knowledge of the language is infrequent or partial. When considering Australian Indigenous history, it becomes clear that this gradual language death has reflected years of marginalisation by an English-speaking majority.
"Our Language is like a Pearl inside a shell
The shell is like the people that carry the language.
If your language is taken away, then that would be like a pearl that is gone
We would be like an empty oyster shell"
Yurranydjil Dhurrkay, Galiwin’ku, North East Arnhem Land
But what are the consequences of Language death and how do we prevent it?
New evidence has shown that language plays a more holistic role in communities than previously thought. For example, a study first published in the Journal of Economic Botany showed that the loss of knowledge keepers who spoke the Yanesha language in the Upper Amazon Basin, directly and negatively impacted the diversity of crops grown. Furthermore, according to UNESCO, a study of ancestral sayings in Mãori revealed relevant information about land processes in the local environment that had been previously unknown to ecologists.
Apart from environmental effects, a language is closely connected to mental wellbeing. A 2007 collaborative study between psychologists and education researchers published in the journal Science Direct revealed that youth suicide rates were lower in Canadian Indigenous communities where participants had a conversational level of their ‘native language’. It is also widely known that bilingualism in general has a range of cognitive benefits, such as lowering the risk of dementia in old age.
Saving languages from extinction is often a multi-faceted issue as it is hard to address the causes of language death in the short term. Thankfully, many non-for-profits have sought to document and record, archive and create educational resources such as dictionaries or apps in order to preserve endangered languages, even after they are classified as extinct.
As a matter of fact, with enough public support, languages can be revitalised. This occurred with Cornish, a Celtic language in the British Isles that was revitalised as a second language in the 20th century after the last native speaker died roughly at the end of the 19th century. Today, Cornish is taught in schools in the region of Cornwall and there is a small but growing community of first language Cornish speakers.
Wikitongues, National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices project and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages are on the front lines of protecting endangered languages, and the fascinating methods of fieldwork that they conduct is really worth looking into.
Furthermore, the UN has deemed 2019 the international year of Indigenous languages in order to raise awareness for this topical current issue.
It is interesting to think that the rapid spread of technology and mass media across the globe can be so destructive to minority languages, yet it is also the best tool to save them.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Woke magazine.