CHARLOTTE KINOUCHI worries about whether ‘hakuna matata’ is the correct attitude to language death

When we hear the word ‘endangered’ we tend to associate it with wildlife such as the giant panda or the polar bear, but few of us would think to associate it with languages. Perhaps this is partly because languages are not cute and fluffy, though more likely it is because endangered languages and language death are issues far less talked about and therefore far less known about. So what does it mean when a language dies? Crystal (2000 :1) says that ‘a language dies when nobody speaks it anymore’. He explains that a language does not simply die at the same time as its last speaker because language is intended as a tool for communication, therefore if it is not actually being used for this purpose then it is technically already dead. Now that that’s been verified, you may want to know just how many languages in the world are in danger of dying. According to Crystal (2000), the rough estimate is 4,000 which is about two thirds of the world’s languages. This includes about 51 languages with only one speaker remaining.

The question I would like to focus on here is whether language death should be a global cause for concern or should we just adopt the ‘hakuna matata’ attitude and not worry about it?

It can be argued that language death has been occurring throughout history and therefore worrying about it now is pointless (Hale et al., 1992). Some have also argued that languages die because their speakers choose to let them die in favour of learning more prestigious languages like English to give them better future prospects (Malik, 2000). Most linguists, however, strongly disagree with these apathetic attitudes. They believe that the death of any language is a detrimental loss to humanity (e.g. Crystal, 2000, Hale et al., 1992, Maffi, 2002) and one of the foremost of these linguists is Crystal (2000). He argues: that languages are needed for diversity; that they are an integral part of our identity; that they contain a nation’s history;  increase human knowledge; and are just generally fascinating to study. His reasons are very convincing and I do agree with them,  However I also have my own opinions on the matter. Whilst I do believe that language preservation is of great importance and that we should care when a language is lost, I also acknowledge that there are human resources which are of even greater importance. For instance, if you had to choose between funding efforts to provide food and clean water to third world countries or efforts to preserve the languages of those third world countries which would you choose? For me personally, I would have to say the former. It is an unfortunate truth that sometimes, in a world overburdened by problems, priorities have to be made and this inevitably leads to compromises and sacrifices. But wherever and whenever possible, I encourage efforts to preserve the world’s languages whole-heartedly.

 CHARLOTTE KINOUCHI, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

 Crystal, D. (2000) Language Death. London: Routledge.

Hale, K., Krauss, M., Watahomigie, L. J., Yamamoto, A. Y., Craig, C., Jeanne, L. M. and England, N. C. (1992) Endangered languages. Language, 68(1), pp. 1.

Maffi, L. (2002) Endangered languages, endangered knowledge. International Social Science Journal, 54, pp. 385–393.

Malik, K. (2000) Let them die. Prospect. Available at: http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/die.html

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2 thoughts on “CHARLOTTE KINOUCHI worries about whether ‘hakuna matata’ is the correct attitude to language death

  1. Lucy Hallmark says:

    This is a really interesting read Charlotte, and I think it’s great the way you have likened and ‘endangered language’ to an endangered species. When put into terms like this, it does appear that we have quite a serious issue on our hands! I have to say, I find myself only partly agreeing with David Crystal. Whilst on one hand it’s interesting to have an insight into what other language were, especially as our own language is the result of the evolution of many others, but preservation of languages which are no longer necessary (like you mentioned there are 51 languages with only one remaining speaker) does seem pointless in this day and age. Although some may argue that the study of languages like Latin are fascinating and can still be studied as a university course, I do find myself asking ‘why? This is no use to us!’ To an extent languages are crucial to one’s identity and diversity, but a language is a minor factor which makes up an individual. Today it just so happens that our language is the one which has been chosen to be a Lingua Franca, it is used as a main language for broadcasting, Science and air traffic control. I for one have no problem with this, however, if my native tongue was that of a small town in Africa with only a few remaining speakers then perhaps I may feel differently.

    • I’m glad you liked it! Yes I agree that being a monolingual speaker of a global language makes it difficult to have a full understanding of the importance of language preservation for speakers of endangered languages. But I do think we should be careful not to take our language too much for granted as it was other languages like Latin that helped to create our language in the first place.

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