Is language death just an inevitable result of natural evolutionary processes? ZAKA KHALID investigates

In recent times, the English Language has spread across the globe like wildfire, aided partly by its supposed simplicity, partly by its perceived usefulness and partly due to its status as a prestigious language. A language that began its life on a small island in the North Sea is now being taught in schools in far-away lands such as China and India. In fact, the popularity of English is now so high that it is often labelled as a ‘killer language’.  As David Crystal puts it, “English is a vacuum-cleaner of a language” (Crystal, 2000).

Recent estimates suggest that there are over 1.5 billion speakers of English, which equates to one quarter of the total population (Crystal, 2000). Native English speakers benefit greatly from this statistic, as it eliminates the need for them to spend their precious time grafting away learning a new language. Indeed, 75% of Britons are unable to speak a foreign language (Paton, 2013), though this is likely down to complacency, as suggested by recent figures which show a drop in the number of modern foreign languages being taken at A-level (Ratcliffe, 2013). When your language needs are catered for at every airport and every major city across the world, where is the incentive for Brits to learn French, German or Mandarin?

A phenomenon called linguistic imperialism refers to the transfer of a dominant language to other people. Robert Phillipson asserts that imperialism is a key factor in the emergence of English in postcolonial settings such as India and Pakistan. Additionally, he cites linguistic discrimination as another key factor in the prominence of English, (Phillipson, 1992). It is also suggested that  ‘English is the passport to success and upward social mobility’ and ‘English is the key to national progress’ are some common clichés that are interspersed; more importantly, these clichés reflect the perception of many people – both rich and poor – in discussing future life chances for their children (Shamim, 2011).

So whilst the entire world is seemingly rushing to learn English, and native English speakers are happy to rest on their laurels, smaller languages are finding themselves in a precarious position. It is estimated that 3,500 of the world’s languages (that’s around half of the total number of languages in the world!) are spoken by a minuscule 0.1% of the population (Harmon 1995, 2002; data source: Lewis et al. 2013). These languages vary in number of speakers, with the smallest ones being used by less than ten individuals, whilst the biggest are used by no more than ten thousand. According to UNESCO, ‘if nothing is done, half of 6,000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century (Unesco, 2016). As the world trends towards cultural and economic globalisation, these languages are being abandoned by their speakers in favour of those which will offer them the greatest opportunities in life, such as English.

UNESCO uses the term ‘endangered’ when speaking about such languages, as if to say that language death is comparable to the extinction of animals. Most people would probably scoff at such a suggestion, but does the death of a language result in the loss of much more than just words?

It is widely agreed that language and culture are closely related, and it has been stated that ‘cultures have evolved in a particular environmental context, so they have an extraordinary amount of traditional ecological knowledge — knowledge of the local species, plants, animals, the medicinal uses of them, the migration patterns of animals behaviour’ (Rosenthal, 2014). This relationship can be given further credence when observing countries such as India, which is said to be home to over 100 million English speakers (The Times of India, 2010). The rise of English in India has paved the way for the rise of Western culture alongside it, with some Indians blaming Westernisation for the increase in single families and a decrease in the showing of respect amongst Indians (Khirbawhani, 2005).

Ultimately, language death could be seen as a form of evolution. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, due in part to economic and cultural trade as well as increasing access to technology, some things are bound to be lost in the transition. Whilst some languages will inevitably be killed off in the process – resulting in the loss of valuable cultural information – the huge array of opportunities that could potentially be accessed by those in possession of an international auxiliary language such as English is too big to ignore.

ZAKA KHALID, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Crystal, D. (2000). Energising Englishes. English Teaching Professional, 1(14),

Khirbawhani. (2005). Impact Of Westernization On Indian Culture. [Weblog]. Retrieved 28 January, 2016.

Paton, G. (2013). Daily Telegraph online Retrieved 28 January, 2016.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism . United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Ratcliffe, R. (2013). The Guardian. Retrieved 28 February, 2016.

Rosenthal, M.J. (2014). Public Radio International. Retrieved 28 January, 2016

Shamim, F. (2011). Dreams and Realities: Developing Countries and the English Language. Retrieved 28 January, 2016.

Unesco. (2016). Endangered languages. Retrieved 28 January, 2016.

The Times of India. (2010). Indiaspeak: English is our 2nd language. Retrieved 28 January, 2016.

 

 

 

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One thought on “Is language death just an inevitable result of natural evolutionary processes? ZAKA KHALID investigates

  1. Logan Vinters says:

    Zaka –

    This is a really informative post on the concept of language death, in particular your reference to the concept of languages dying out being due to evolutionary processes is really interesting.

    The statistics and figures that have been presented really enforce the image of the vast spread and reach of global English. English trails behind Mandarin and Spanish in terms of approximate number of speakers so it is interesting to note as to why English seems to be the language that is being adopted by the world as the lingua franca and not one of the more popular languages.

    Phillipson is a good choice in regards to the notion of language imperialism. This can give us some insight as to how English came about as being the default language to learn and from there why it has quickly become the popular choice for the global lingua franca. As you state, it does seem cliché to talk of global English as being vital to the future of children who speak a different language, but as English has been described as being the language of science, medicine and technology, it is not something to be scoffed at.

    I would argue that language and culture are not only closely related but rather language actually mirrors a people’s culture and that they are ingrained with each other. The Welsh proverb, ‘a nation without a language is a nation without a heart’, seems to exemplify this quite well. As a result of this it becomes evident as to why the loss of a language can be such a momentous event.

    The example of social views in India in relation to global English and Western culture back packing alongside it are fascinating. Crystal (2000:29) explains that a native language and a lingua franca have different purposes, ‘one for identity, the other for intelligibility’. It seems to me that there has to be some give and take in a nation when choosing to adopt another language. Accepting a recognised global language can bring prosperity and economic production to a nation, amongst other things, but as mentioned before, culture is intertwined in a language and this culture can bleed into the nation.

    It does seem that there are a limited number of options for people to choose from when their mother tongue begins to go into the endangered zone. It is more than a shame to let these languages die out but there has to be some onus put on the nation of the dying language to rejuvenate some vigor towards the teaching of the language. Otherwise it seems that evolution will play its part, even in the case of languages.

    – Thanks, Logan Vinters.

    Crystal, D. (2000). Language Death. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

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