Why do languages die out and does it matter? MEGAN MOODY explores the pros and cons of language loss

How necessary is the preservation of ‘endangered’ languages? As a monolingual speaker of a global lingua franca, it is difficult to understand the importance of preserving endangered languages, especially for the few remaining speakers of them. Languages are dying at a considerable rate around the world today. Crystal (2000:1) estimates approximately one language is being lost every two weeks. Despite the concerns of many linguists, the use of a ‘main’ language could become inevitable, with English being the front-runner. As English is an official, or co-official language in one third of the world’s countries and within 90 countries it plays a significant role.

According to David Crystal, 1.5 billion people use English as either a first, second or foreign language (2000:3). English is a global language being used in many sectors around the world, such as education, business, science and even air traffic control. This contact language lifts barriers and is useful for people to communicate around the world with ease. It provides access to wider sources of information. In particular the internet holds 60% of online content that uses English as the preferred language. As Kenan Malik (2000) argues, language has the whole purpose for the ability of communication. He points out that if there are not enough people to speak a language, then is it really worth keeping it alive. This is an important factor of the extinction of languages, as 19 out of 20 languages are not being passed down to younger generations (Krauss, 2007). This is mainly owing to the knowledge of a prestigious language representing a higher level of class and education, consequently resulting in greater opportunities for employment. For example, in Egypt the capability to speak English would increase your pay by potentially three times in some businesses. Thus as Woodbury states, “the fate of a language can depend on one generation”.

McIntyre discusses the alleged benefits of simply letting English globalize. He states that speaking one global language could “make travel easier, […] international communication more straightforward and provide more economic opportunities” (2009:76). However, it is questionable whether the benefits outweigh the consequences of allowing languages to die. The endangerment of languages is a widespread problem that many are determined to prevent. Crawford elaborates on this claiming that, “when languages die the world loses four big things: cultural diversity, cultural identity, intellectual diversity and linguistic diversity”. An argument against Crawford is that a language must die for a reason; therefore doubts arise surrounding the need to preserve it (1995:33). Some claim that the saving dying languages is unnecessary as cultural forms have been changing throughout history and will never be immortal. Therefore attempting to rescue endangered languages represents a need to cling to the past instead of focusing on moving forward.

There are possible advantages to the usage of a global language.Schneider (2011) points out that English is the language of trade and business that offers an easier way of communicating. Crystal explains that “sharing a single language is a guarantor of mutual understanding and peace, a world of new alliances and global solidarity” (2000: 27). This idea generates the question as to whether speaking fewer languages would be better for the sake of the world leading to the encouragement of language death. Crystal however suggests that speaking fewer languages creates ‘linguistic power’ (2003:16) meaning that for the people whose mother tongue is the global language there would appear to be a higher regard. For example 75% of Britons are unable to speak foreign languages, with a vast downfall in foreign languages being chosen for A-Level study in British schools.

Of course language makes up part of our identity and holds an extensive supply of culture. Are people losing part of their identity by choosing not to speak their native tongue? Or is it the case that languages have been naturally developing for hundreds of years, therefore the death of them is organic and a process of evolution.

MEGAN MOODY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Crawford, J. (1995). Endangered Native American Languages: What is to be Done, and Why? The Bilingual Research Journal, 19 (1).

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

Crystal, D. (2003) English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Krauss, Michael. (1992). The world’s languages in crisis, Language 68(1), 4-10.

McIntyre, D. (2009) History of English: A Resource Book for Students. London: Routledge.

Malik, K. 2000. Let them die in peace. 

Schneider, E. (2011) English Around the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woodbury, A.  What is an endangered language? Linguistic Society of America.

 

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One thought on “Why do languages die out and does it matter? MEGAN MOODY explores the pros and cons of language loss

  1. Charlotte Scott says:

    Very interesting blog Megan. You have covered a range of different factors regarding language loss which forms a very complex debate. You have included a variety of theorists within your blog which begins to encourage the debate within this topic. David Crystal (2000) is a very influential linguist, author and academic whose theoretical study supports the points that you have commented upon. These comments include, English being a global language that is used in a range of different sectors which helps to remove barriers within language. Sadly, languages are not being passed down to younger generations and this is a large factor that is effecting the loss of languages. Do you believe that if there is not enough people communicating and learning a language that it should die out? Or should a country like ourselves with an official language be promoting these unique languages which express different cultures, diversity and identity. It is also very interesting that you have used the example that “75% of Britons are unable to speak foreign languages”, this may portray the impression that Britons determine English as having a “linguistic power” (Crystal, 2003, p 16) therefore regarding it as a superior language. English is used to communicate through the global market and trade providing opportunities within the education and job sector therefore this may determine these opinions.

    References:

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

    Crystal, D. (2003). English as a global language (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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