In Industrial Age, World's Languages Dwindle in Number

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THERE are powerful lobbies for saving the whales and other endangered species. But who speaks up for the world's endangered languages?

In the coming century, 90 to 95 percent of the existing 6,000 tongues will become extinct or will be headed for extinction if present trends continue, according to Michael Krauss, who heads the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

There seems to be little public awareness of this decline. Yet, to the handful of linguists who are concerned about it, that loss is as tragic as is the loss of plants and animals. That is why some of these linguists held a symposium here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As Dr. Krauss explained, they want to call attention to what they consider a loss of human diversity and cultural heritage of value to all humans.

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Languages have come and gone throughout humanity's development. But there has always been a rich diversity. Now that diversity is disappearing at a precipitous rate.

Krauss says that, although anthropologists lack good data on the loss rate, something between 20 and 50 percent of present-day languages probably are no longer being learned by children. That includes 149 of the 187 native languages still spoken in North America. Krauss adds that only about 5 to 10 percent of the existing 6,000 tongues can be considered ``safe.'' These are national languages or those spoken by large numbers of people.

Scientists here attributed the loss of languages to some of the same influences that affect the loss species: the destruction of habitat and pollution and the general advance of industrial civilization. These things disrupt small human groups just as they do plants and animals. Global trade and communication also contribute to the growing dominance of some languages at the expense of others.

Languages are distributed unevenly around the world. There are approximately 900 in the Americas, 275 in Europe and the Middle East, 1,900 in Africa, and 3,000 throughout Asia and the Pacific Ocean area. Many are regional and spoken by a few thousand people at most. For example, about 8 million people account for 1,400 languages in the Pacific Islands and New Guinea. And some of these languages are as different from one another as French is from Japanese.

Yet as Krauss and his colleague Leanne Hinton of the University of California at Berkeley noted at a press conference, even a language with only a few speakers represents a major human achievement. It represents long cultural development. It embodies what may be unique ways of looking at space and time and at the common human experience of living on Earth. These could provide helpful insights as humanity tries to work out ways of maintaining a healthy planet.

Whenever a language is allowed to die, such elements of cultural diversity are lost. ``We do not have the right to make that decision [to incur that loss] for our posterity,'' Krauss says.

Yet, as Dr. Hinton explained, it's hard to revive a moribund language. It's easy for the young generation to adopt the dominant language and let the language of their heritage slip. But some of those younger people are awakening to what they are losing. Hinton, for example, is guiding a program in California in which younger adults ``apprentice'' themselves to older relatives who still speak the ancestral tongue. That way a language still spoken by only a few people can be passed to younger speakers. The hope is that this will help lay the foundation for reviving the language.

Hinton acknowledges this is a small attack on a massive challenge. A global effort is needed if the rapid loss of languages is to be stemmed. A first step, Krauss says, would be for linguists to join forces with the scientific community that is concerned with saving the planet's biological diversity. He considers human cultural diversity as important as the diversity of plants and animals.

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