A recent report has revealed that nearly 2500 languages are at risk of becoming extinct in the near future. Why do languages die out? Does it matter if they do? And how can we save an endangered language? Let’s talk about this on today’s episode of Thinking in English!
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Endangered (adj) – things that may soon not exist because there are very few around now
The rhino is an endangered animal
Generation (n) – all the people of about the same age within a society
The younger generation smokes less that their parents did
Elder (n) – an older person, especially one with a respected position in society
You should listen to the advice of your elders
To absorb (v) – to take something in, especially gradually
Towels absorb moisture
at the expense of (phrase) – resulting in the loss of something
They chose to speed up production at the expense of safety
To document (v) – to record the details of an event, a process, etc
His interest in cars has been well-documented
Exclusively (adv) – only
That YouTuber has an exclusively female audience
To revitalise (v) – to give new life, energy, activity, or success to something
They made a plan to revitalise the city centre
Multilingualism (n) – knowledge of more languages than a native language
The school embraced multilingualism and offered classes in the country’s three national languages
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What is an Endangered Language?
According to the Endangered Languages Project from Eastern Michigan University and the University of Hawai’i, thousands of languages are at risk of becoming extinct. Out of over 7000 languages spoken around the world, nearly 2500 are endangered.
An endangered language, according to the Linguistic Society of America, is “one that is likely to become extinct in the near future.” Over years, languages fall out of use and are often replaced by larger and more widely spoken languages. Eventually, new generations no longer learn and use their families traditional languages, with the language dying when the last speaker also dies.
UNESCO has a classification system for endangered languages with five different levels. Vulnerable languages are still spoken by children but only in certain places (like the home). Definitely endangered are no longer spoken by children as a native language; severely endangered languages are spoken by grandparents and elders but are not used to speak to children; Critically endangered languages are only spoken by elder generations and used only infrequently; and extinct languages have no speakers left.
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How Can a Language Become Endangered?
Languages can become extinct for a variety of reasons. The most shocking and terrible reason is genocide. The Tasmanian languages, for example, largely became extinct in the 19th century thanks to British and European settlers’ attempts to destroy the culture and societies on the island off Australia.
More common, however, is languages becoming extinct when a small community is absorbed into a larger or more powerful community. While in some cases people are encouraged to learn both their own language and the outsider languages, often there is pressure for small communities to give up their languages, culture, and identity.
Think about a region like the Americas. Before the arrival of Europeans, the continent was populated by indigenous peoples with a wide diversity and variety of native languages. Today, English, Spanish, and Portuguese now dominate the Americas and are largely required to become successful. Speaking the majority or major language is usually the key to education, jobs, and opportunities.
Sometimes the pressure to give up your native language is also very direct. In settler colonies like Australia, the US, and Canada, the languages spoken by indigenous people were often deliberately restricted. In fact, Native Americans in the USA were often punished for using their native languages in school.
If the language is no longer being learned by children, a language can become endangered at a very fast pace. The Yupik languages of Alaska’s Yupik Eskimo communities took just a single generation to become endangered: parents who spoke native Yupik raised children who could only speak English. In other cases, it can be a much slower process – some Native American languages like Mohawk have been classed as endangered for nearly 200 years but are still spoken by both adults and children in the USA.
Endangered languages are most commonly spoken by minority communities – especially minority communities that are small in number and have to compete with other more powerful languages. Languages including English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Swahili, and Indonesian are increasingly being taught to minority children at the expense of their native languages. Some estimates suggest that within a century, 80% of the world’s languages may become extinct.
Particularly at threat are the indegnous languages of Papua New Guinea, Australia, and the Americas. Jingulu in northern Australia is only spoken by a handful of people; there are fewer than 5 speakers of the Ainu language of northern Japan (a language I have studied a little in the past); and there is only one documented speaker of the Kawishana language of Brazil. Australia is known as the home of endangered languages: when Europeans arrived there were around 300 different languages spoken in Australia. Since then, 100 have gone extinct and around 95% of the remaining languages are close to dying out.
Once a language falls to only a few speakers, it becomes incredibly difficult to pass down to new generations and keep the language’s quality. If a language is not spoken regularly, it will begin to degrade and deteriorate in the speaker’s minds. And even if there are a few people who still speak a language, it doesn’t mean they will be close enough to speak to each other. Famously, the last two surviving speakers of the Columbian Mexican language Ayapaneco hated each other and refused to speak for many years.
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Does it matter if a language becomes extinct?
Why does it matter if a language becomes extinct? Some people see language losses as a natural part of human and social development. And as many of these languages are spoken by only a few people, it is easy to say “who cares?”
When a community loses its language, it also loses much of its culture and history. We experience our lives and worlds through language: and language changes the way we think about topics and issues. We communicate our culture and spirituality through language. There are types of art, poetry, styles of conversation, humour, vocabulary for meals and emotions, myths, and everyday greetings that can not be translated into any other language. Once a language becomes extinct, it becomes incredibly difficult to continue these traditions.
Language can also demonstrate unique aspects of a culture. The Cherokee language from America, for example, has no words for “goodbye” or “I’m sorry” – which tells us a lot about how Cherokee people interacted with each other. Moreover, there are amazing unique words in every language that can not be translated directly – the Cherokee have a word (oo-kah-huh-sdee) which is used to describe the delight when you see an adorable baby or kitten. Without a language, these aspects of a culture can be forgotten as they cannot be expressed in English or other European languages.
Our languages also tell us a lot about the history of our communities and ancestors. By studying languages, researchers can trace connections of communities and work out how societies formed. Languages also reveal a lot about the environment. Indigenous Papuan Languages, for example, reveal which plants are used for food, medicine, or poison. They have words for every single thing in their environment, and these words can tell us information. Moreover, studying speakers of small and endangered languages can also reveal unique and important things about the way the human brain develops and how our thought processes are affected by language!
Most of the listeners of this podcast probably speak a major language. But just because your language is common and popular today, doesn’t mean it will always stay that way. And there are probably quite a few of you who have ancestors, perhaps even parents or grandparents who speak endangered or at risk languages. Many listeners of Thinking in English come from Brazil and Mexico – the Americas are full of languages that will soon die out. And even my European listeners might have family who speak endangered languages. For example, Basque and Gascon speakers in Spain; Saami speakers in Finland; or Vilamovian speakers in Poland.
How Can We Save Endangered Languages?
How Did Manx Survive?
What can we do to save endangered languages? I think looking at a successful example would be a good start.
Manx is a language that was historically the native language of the Isle of Man – an island in the sea between Great Britain and Ireland. It is closely related to Irish and Scottish Gaelic. By the beginning of the 19th century, English began to replace Manx as English was viewed as a language of opportunity and success. In contrast, Manx was seen as the language of poverty. Parents began educating their children exclusively in English
The language had largely died out by the end of the 19th century. Many Manx speakers themselves decided to abandon the language in favour of English. In 1974, Ned Maddrell, the last native speaker of Manx, passed away. And in 2009 the language was declared extinct by the UN.
However, Manx is currently undergoing a revival. Despite being declared extinct in 2009, there are around 2000 people on the Isle of Man who claim to speak Manx. It is even possible to hear Manx being spoken in the island’s pubs. According to the language expert David Harrison, “The Manx language is a wonderful comeback story.”
Activists and islanders have managed to create a new generation of “native speakers” – the first for over a hundred years. There is a primary school with around 70 pupils which teaches almost entirely in the Manx language. When the UN announced Manx as a dead language, the students at school wrote a letter saying “If our language is extinct then what language are we writing in?” Parents are also learning the language so that they can help and understand their children’s school work.
Manx can be found in YouTube videos, podcasts, smartphone apps, and many other forms of technology. Manx music has become increasingly popular, and church services can now be heard in the language.
Manx is an excellent example of a language that has been brought back from the dead. Although it is still endangered, and the main language on the Isle of Man is still English, Manx has started to become a native language again,
What can be done to save Endangered Languages?
Linguists and experts are currently trying to quickly document and record the world’s most endangered languages. By making dictionaries, translated stories, and recording the last speakers’ voices, there is hope that these languages could be revitalised even if they eventually become extinct. This has happened before – the language of the Native American Miami tribe died out in the 1960s, but thanks to one tribe member who wanted to learn the language again it started to be spoken and taught in universities.
In some countries, there is political and institutional support for languages. Modern Hebrew was revived as a spoken daily language after hundreds of years of only being written and studied. After years of not being used, it is now the official language of Israel. Ireland has political support for the Irish language which has been under threat from English. In some countries, minority languages are given protection in constitutions.
All over the world, communities are also beginning to try to preserve and revive their own languages. Communities across New Zealand, Alaska, Hawaii, and other places are establishing nursery schools and kindergartens that are exclusively taught in minority languages.
To save endangered languages, we should accept multilingualism as a normal part of life. Children who speak multiple languages can, and do, speak their languages as well as people who just speak one. Education should be bilingual, or even trilingual in some places.
We also have so much technology today that can help to preserve languages. Countries including Nigeria, New Zealand, and Australia are beginning to use AI technology to translate and teach languages.
There is hope that we can save and remember the world’s amazing and diverse languages.
On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I have looked at endangered languages. There is a chance that within my lifetime thousands of languages will disappear from the earth, taking with them years of knowledge, traditions, culture, and history. Personally, I feel like this would be a great shame.
There are ways to save and bring languages back. Manx, the language of the Isle of Man, is an excellent example of how to bring a dead language back to life. Hopefully the same can be done for other languages around the world.
We need to accept multilingualism in our societies, encourage children to keep their native languages instead of just learning the majority language, and make efforts to record and document the world’s languages!
What is your native language? Do you speak an endangered language, or do you know anyone who speaks one? What do you think we should do to protect and save endangered languages?
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