How concerned should we be about dying languages? SOPHIE HEATH investigates

There are currently around 7105 languages in the world today (Ethnologue, 2013). At least half of these are projected to disappear within this century (Endangered Language Fund, 2013). Many of these endangered languages do not even have written forms and have yet to recorded by linguists; therefore when the last speaker of one of these languages dies, it will be as if it never even existed (Crystal, 2009). But what are the consequences of losing a language?

It is often said that we should respect linguistic diversity in the same way we should respect ecological diversity (BBC Voices, 2007), and according to linguists such as Crystal (2009), we all have cause to be concerned about endangered languages, as the effects of language loss can be felt much further afield than we would initially expect.

Firstly, when a language is lost, a wealth of culture, knowledge, and a unique way of seeing the world is lost with it (BBC Languages, 2007). For example, in the Native American language, Micmac, the way speakers are able to distinguish between different types of trees based on the sounds they make in the wind has revealed the effects of acid rain on certain types of tree species (BBC Voices, 2007).

Having as many languages available as possible is also vitally important to linguists hoping to learn more about language; but perhaps the most important aspect of preserving an endangered language is the strong connection its speakers share with their own identity (BBC Voices, 2007).

The revitalisation of the Welsh language is often hailed as a success story (Crystal, 2009), but despite this achievement, English continues to reign as the country’s dominant language, as only 19% of people living in Wales over the age of three are able to speak Welsh (BBC News, 2012). As a second language speaker of Welsh, I have found little opportunity to use the language since leaving my Welsh-medium high school, and whilst being able speak the language forms part of my identity and culture, I have often thought I would have preferred to have been taught a far more widely spoken language that would give me greater opportunities, such as French, German or Mandarin.

If I feel I have lost opportunities through being able speak a second language with only 562,016 speakers (BBC News, 2012) rather than a language with millions of speakers, then how does it compare to the opportunities lost by monolingual speakers of a minority language, such as Xiri (187 speakers) or Isconahua (82 speakers), (Ethnologue, 2013)?

This is an argument often proposed by those who feel endangered languages should be allowed to die out, along with the claims that multiple languages defeat the purpose of communication, and are against the idea of multiculturalism (BBC Languages, 2007).

Whilst I believe everyone has a right to speak their own language, as it forms an integral part of their identity, how can millions be spent on revitalising and promoting a minority language, particularly in developing countries, where the majority of endangered languages reside (Ethnologue, 2013), when the same money can be spent on the wellbeing of those who speak it?

 SOPHIE HEATH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

 BBC Languages – Your Say – Language and identity (2007) [Accessed 23 December 2013]. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/yoursay/language_and_identity.shtml

BBC News Census 2011: number of welsh speakers falling (2012) [Accessed 20 January 2014]. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-20677528

BBC Voices (2007) [Accessed 22 December 2013]. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/yourvoice/language_ecology.shtml#A

Crystal, D. (2009) The Future of Language, Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Endangered Language Fund (2013) [Accessed 27 December 2013]. Available at: http://www.endangeredlanguagefund.org/

Ethnologue World Map (2013) [Accessed 24 December 2013]. Available at: http://www.ethnologue.com/world

 

 

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One thought on “How concerned should we be about dying languages? SOPHIE HEATH investigates

  1. Jess Johnston says:

    Hi Sophie!
    I’d like to add to the statement you found on BBC Voices that ‘we should respect linguistic diversity in the same way we should respect ecological diversity’. Crystal similarly compares language death to the concept of the green movement – something which, growing up, we become greatly aware of. He proposes that language death is not an issue that has ‘attracted the public attention in the same way as has the issue of the environment’ (2002: 32), despite the fact that it should be a cause for concern.
    However, I definitely agree with your final argument that the millions spent on revitalising and promoting minority languages could be spent on areas deemed more important, such as the well-being of those speakers living in developing countries. Whilst I believe that minority languages are more often than not essential to individuals’ identities and culture, I also believe that eliminating any risk towards their well-being is vital in comparison to eliminating the risk of losing their language.
    I also like your example of the promotion of Welsh in your school. My Grandad was brought up in Wales till he moved to England in his twenties and, therefore, could speak Welsh as well as English. During my time at school he would always encourage me to take on a language subject applying a similar argument to you. He believed that it would have been more beneficial for him to have been given the opportunity to be taught a language such as French or Spanish like I was, rather than Welsh for which he had no further use as he got older.

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