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Can we revive endangered languages? Should we?

Over 1,000 languages are severely or critically endangered, according to UNESCO, and some scientists are saying economic growth is driving language extinction. But what might be the consequences of less language diversity?

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    A Bakarwal nomad girl Ishrat Khan looks on outside a temporary camp at Buchpora, near Srinagar, India, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012. The Bakarwal are just one of the nearly 200 nomadic tribes in India whose languages are in danger of exctinction, according to scholar Ganesh Devy.
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Of the world’s more than 6,000 languages, up to half could be gone in the next fifty years.

But why? Findings published in September in the journal Proceedings B, point to economic growth.

In order to determine what was pushing certain languages over the brink, a research team led by Tatsuya Amano at the University of Cambridge mapped out hundreds of languages using three criteria (based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's criteria for its Red List of threatened species): rapid decline in the number of speakers, a small geographical range, and a small number of speakers.

The team found two types of hotspots of language extinction. One type includes economically developed regions, such as Australia and the northwestern United States, where many languages have already died and a number of 'small' languages still exist.

“Because of the economic growth and social development, languages there are now threatened by this cultural economic development,” Dr. Amano told the Monitor.

A second type of hotspot comprises areas like the Himalayas and the tropics, where many languages with small geographic ranges or speaker population sizes exist and have remained fairly isolated. For parts of the Himalayan region, such as in India, that continue to experience rapid economic growth, the threat is high.

“In the tropical regions, economics is now growing in many countries,” says Amano. “So that means in the near future, even these languages in the tropics and Himalayan region will be threatened at a similar level.”

India: language extinction in clusters

India contains a slew of small language populations: in 2010 the country was home to about 100 endangered languages and more than 70 other languages that were deemed vulnerable, according to UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. In a country with such expansive language diversity, tallying the number of languages spoken across the country presents a substantial task in itself, before determining which of those are under threat.

The 2001 Census of India listed 234 identifiable mother tongue languages in addition to the 122 major languages. Ethnologue, a project to catalogue the world's languages conducted by the religious organization SIL International, lists 447 living languages in India. The People's Linguistic Survey of India, a privately funded research project headed by scholar Ganesh Devy, identified almost 800 languages over several years of fieldwork beginning in 2010.

After studying and documenting hundreds of spoken and written languages across the country, Devy says his team found two groups in particular whose languages are facing extinction. Coastal communities, whose opportunities for sea farming and fishing have worsened with the drop in popularity of traditional fishing techniques, have moved inland and are experiencing shifts in their languages as a result.

The second group consists of the nearly 200 nomadic communities in India that have been criminalized for their itinerant lifestyle.

“Therefore, they have been, over the last 50 or 60 years, unwilling to utter their language in the presence of a third person,” Devy told the Monitor.

But the challenges that these groups' languages are meeting is not the norm in India, according to Devy.

"I will not say that development has affected languages in India uniformly all over the country, but in different segments it has affected differently," Devy says.

In cities like Mumbai and Calcutta, a relatively small language can still consist of sizable numbers of speakers. In 2008, civic authorities in Mumbai pushed to have all official documentation for the municipal government written in Marathi, the official language of the Maharashtra state, as opposed to Hindi or English. The legislation, passed by the city's former mayor Shubha Raul, implied the prioritizing of maintaining everyday use of the language, despite the theory that doing so could put at risk the city's commercial development.

'Comeback' languages and the caveats of preservation

Speakers of minority languages like Marathi or languages that have been repressed through colonization have, throughout history, made pushes to ensure survival of their native tongues. And some that were once on the verge of extinction have experienced resurgences.

Irish was on the brink of extinction in the late 19th century, but is now spoken by nearly 1.8 million people, according to Ireland's 2012 census. Whether or not its near-death was due mainly to economic growth, though is arguable: English rule, which brought the forced use of the English language, may be tied to development of the region, but the famine in the mid-1800s is also viewed as a prominent factor in the decline of Irish speakers.

Hawaiian offers another story of recovery from near-extinction. With the introduction of Europeans and, then, Americans, to the Hawaiian islands in the early 1800s came commercial production of plantation crops such as sugarcane and pineapple. The newcomers also brought with them pathogens, the imposition of foreign languages, and eventually the 1896 declaration making English the language of instruction in schools.

“Whether or not it was real or just some kind of idea in the public’s mind, [the idea that] you had to have English to be economically viable pervaded the community,” Dr. K. Laiana Wong, associate professor at the Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language, told the Monitor.

Then, beginning in the 1950s, focus on preservation of the language led to a gradual increase in number of speakers. The 1980s brought the introduction of Hawaiian-language immersion preschools and higher-level schools. The number of native speakers jumped from 2,000 in 1997 to about 24,000 one decade later.

“When the language revitalization movement was fairly new, people were still buying into the idea that you needed English to get ahead,” Wong says. “But the majority now have come around a bit, and are supportive of it.”

But the salvaging of Hawaiian vocabulary and grammatical structures didn't mean preservation of the language as it once existed.

"The Hawaiian language that sort of captures the Hawaiian worldview is shifting out, it's fading away," says Wong. "And the Hawaiian language that is really a translation from English is taking over."

Could tech be the champion of some small languages?

Though economic development and technological development are often thought of as complementary, the two could be working toward different ends when it comes to language.

“Technology, which is changing the ability to understand what is read, ability to understand what is spoken...is affecting the very structure of the human brain,” says Devy.

According to Devy, this change has involved less focus on interpretation of sound and more focus on interpretation of image, and might be exemplified by communicating with others via Facebook statuses or Tweets. Increased use of social media sites on computer and mobile devices has, at times, led to an increased desire to ‘online share’ in one's native tongue. The Monitor's Lauren Villagran reported in 2013 on social media as a preservation tool in Mexico:

"Social media have become a crucial bridge between the academics, activists, and young people who want to preserve the more than 360 variants of indigenous languages alive in Mexico today…Both through social media, and perhaps because of it, they're joining a burgeoning movement to create alphabets and a way to write previously unwritten languages like Chatino."

Computer networks generally have provided various opportunities to preserve and disseminate information about languages. Some other functional technologies have been around for a few decades: sound recording has been around for more than a century and digital recorders, commonly used to hold audio data of oral languages, were introduced in the 1970s.

So while Amano's team argues economic growth appears to be the main driver of language extinction, certain tech innovations may be helping to at least slow it down. But if technology fails to offset other effects of economic growth, as it has in some isolated cases, what might the negative effects of language loss look like?

Though a drop in the number of languages spoken around the globe may not produce visibly immediate consequences, preservationists argue that, similarly to biological diversity, language diversity increases our resilience as a species.

“Diverse languages are associated with diverse culture,” says Amano. “And preserving cultural diversity is associated with traditional knowledge about nature and how to sustainably use the natural environment.”

Another idea posits the inherent good in maintaining language diversity. Each language, simply by the fact that it exists, has its own value and, should that language go away, something is lost.

But the struggle to rescue a language, even with the help of certain technologies, can seem punishing. Though there are numerous small languages that persist in the presence of economic growth and globalization, it appears that even when they are able to make comebacks, they don't come back the same. And so Amano and his team have not stopped their research at figuring out what may be driving language extinction.

“We want to find the way where economic growth can coexist with small languages,” Amano says.

This is the first installment of a series on global language evolution. The second installment explores the reasons behind the high level of language diversity on the African continent.

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