Are ‘dying’ languages worth saving or should we let nature take its course? KIM DOYLE explores languages in danger

Have you ever familiarised yourself with the egg-laying behaviour of the cuckoo with sympathy for the chicks of whatever species have been pushed out of their nest? Or do you take the stance of survival of the fittest? Now imagine that your first-learned language fell out of use due to domination by another language.

Of course, this is a very simplified analogy of a process known as language endangerment, a phenomenon that is no stranger to many speakers in the world today. Language endangerment involves the gradual decline of a language’s use to the extent where it is no longer passed down throughout generations (Mosely, 2010). This process involves a competitive element, similarly to that existing in biological ecosystems, where organisms compete for survival. Alternatively, two languages may ‘co-exist’ within a speech community. This results in a wave of bilingualism, typically before speakers adopt the language providing the greatest benefits (Janse, 2003).

It is in fact no surprise that languages are being lost at a rate of one language every fourteen days (Aulakh, 2013). One of the many instances of language loss derives from two primal human behaviours, habituation and communication. In modern times, we still recognise the need to inhabit and thrive in new territory. The product of such movement results in the phenomenon of ‘globalisation’. In this context, speakers of dominant languages inhabit or visit language-dense areas of the world known as “hot spots” (typically with underlying motives of exploration or trade). Due to this, native speakers of indigenous languages may feel obliged to “trade” their language in exchange for valuable supplies. Many languages however, are lost to barbaric acts such as massacres of speech communities, enslavement of speakers or simply outbreak of disease (Campbell, 1994).

In 1975, eighteen speakers spoke the Amerindian language of Taushiro (Juanita, 2008). Unfortunately, the speaker population has since been reduced to a single speaker – Amadeo Garcia Garcia. Taushiro fell to the knees of Spanish and Quechua once the final Taushiros wed speakers of these languages. Therefore, Taushiro is now classified as “critically endangered” due to its lack of transmission throughout generations (UNESCO, 2003). Inevitably, languages with a very low speaker population will encounter language death (‘linguicide’), a process which occurs when the last speaker of the language dies (Crystal, 2000, p.1).

When a language is lost, the world loses more than a grammatical and inflectional system. Each language encapsulates the history of its speakers, literature, cultural identity of speakers and the thought process attached to each language (Crystal, 2000). With reference to the latter, speakers have reported to dream in their native tongue. Amadeo dreams in Taushiro despite possessing a bilingual tongue for Spanish and Taushiro. This finding may raise questions about the impact of language on human cognition and more troublesomely so, whether loss of a native language could result in social dysfunction?

Different languages represent unique visualisations of the world and conceptualise languages in different ways (Werner, 1997, pp.76-77). Therefore, we may question how speakers of different cultures recognise concepts in their language such as, time, social relations, power, etc. For example, in Spanish, we may investigate whether higher levels of power are assigned to male speakers as opposed to female speakers in mixed-sex conversations, as the nosotros form (Spanish, masculine equivalent for we), is adopted even by a predominantly female group if one or more males are present.

We are likely to lose 50% of the world’s languages in the next century (Woodbury). This translates as a potential loss of 2,800 languages. However, language death typically mirrors less successful ways of life that will likely not benefit mankind in the twenty-first century. If language truly has a link with biodiversity, then we should firstly consider the consequences of over-population before attempting to ‘save’ dying languages, that is, before considering the financial cost of doing so, keeping in mind that funds could instead be used to enhance global communication. We must also consider the attitudes of speakers of these languages. Many speakers of minority languages in China, for instance would rather their children succumb to a ‘superior’ language, Mandarin, to improve career prospects (Blanchard, 2010).

There is no right or wrong answer as to whether endangered languages should be saved. Ultimately, the strengths and weaknesses of each side of the debate should be considered, not from a linguist’s perspective, who may take a greater interest in the language than the public, but from the speakers. It will inevitably be them making either a sacrifice, or an advancement, depending on personal opinion.

KIM DOYLE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

 References

Aulakh, R. (2013, April 15). Dying languages: Scientists fret as one disappears every 14 days. The Star. 

Blanchard, B. (2010, March 12). China’s minority languages face threat of extinction. Reuters.

Campbell, L. (1994). Language death. In R. E. Asher & J. M. Y. Simpson (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 4. Oxford. United Kingdom: Pergamon.

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

Janse, M. (2003).  Language death and language maintenance: problems and prospects. Amsterdam. The Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Juanita, P. (2008). Who were the Taushiro? Retrieved January 25, 2018, from: https://tau-shiro.weebly.com/

McWhorter, J.H. (2014). The language hoax: Why the world looks the same in any language. Oxford. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Mosely, C. (2010). Atlas of the world’s languages in danger. Paris. France: UNESCO Publishing.

Werner, O. (1997). Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In P.V. Lamarque (Ed.) (1997), Concise Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and Language (pp.76-83). Oxford. United Kingdom: Pergamon.

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

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Are ‘dying’ languages worth saving or should we let nature take its course? KIM DOYLE explores languages in danger

  1. JOSHUA WOLSTENHOLME says:

    This blog is very interesting and provokes some major thought into the two arguments surrounding ‘Language Death’. It seems like you have tried to represent both sides of the debate fairly and voiced some points that really challenged my point of view regarding the matter. Unfortunately, language endangerment is a tough argument to resolve as there will always be two sides fighting for what they believe is the correct choice.
    I found the example of the Amerindian language of Taushiro particularly interesting as the last speaker must be very lonely and desperate. I agree with the argument that the death of a language includes the end of its culture and history. It is very easy for native speakers of a widely spoken language to disregard this claim however, it is likely that they would feel differently regarding their own language. However, the benefits of speaking a popular language are very important to the future success of a person. One example of this which can be seen in this blog is the notion that parents want their children to learn these languages because they provide better job opportunities.
    As a result, I agree with your point that the decision to save a language should mainly be in the hands of its speakers. If they do not have any reason to keep it alive in favour of the benefits of speaking another language, then maybe it should be left to die. However, I also believe that all languages should be recorded as they are important pieces of history and culture.

  2. Briony Greaves says:

    Hi Kim, I found your blog very interesting, so well done!
    As you expressed, languages tend to “fall to the knees” of more dominant languages, for example Spanish. I pose that this is because they want to widen their social circle and not feel refined to the few people who speak their endangered language. This enables higher levels of communication, which is the whole point of language according to Kenan (2011). Therefore, language is fulfilling its main function since speakers are adopting superior languages with more speakers in replacement of their own that is dying out. This seems to be a positive factor of the amount of languages narrowing because it means communication is advancing.
    Your blog opened my eyes to the high volume of languages we are at risk of losing in the future, and those we have already lost. However, when the last speaker of a language dies, nobody mourns the language lost. Therefore, is there any point in putting money and resources towards saving them? I agree with your point that preserving a language should be down to the speakers of this language. There needs to be a motivation to save and preserve these endangered languages, but when people already have their own language that everyone they know speaks, they are not going to have the motivation to learn a new language that no-one speaks. Knowing more languages does open more career paths for people, but this will only include languages that a mass amount of people speaks.
    It is difficult to give my own personal stance on this subject because I only speak English and was never eager to learn additional languages. It is not that I expect everyone in the world to speak English, but because it has never been something that interests me. However, I do think I would feel strongly about language death and endangerment if it was more personal to me.

    Reference list:
    Kenan, M. (18 April, 2011.) Romancing the tongue. Retrieved from: https://kenanmalik.com/2011/04/18/romancing-the-tongue/

  3. Emma Robinson says:

    Hi Kim, I was delighted to see that you had written a blog post on dying languages as this is something I have touched on at my time at university, but always wanted to study further as I find it fascinating. I must say, I really enjoyed your analogy of the egg in the nest, and it made me realise how fortunate I am that I have never had to consider my language becoming extinct, being an English native speaker.

    One point you raised that really sparked my interest was that of ‘globalisation’ being a cause of language endangerment, and upon researching it, I found an research looking in to the dominating effects of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita on speaker growth and language endangerment. This study argues that economic growth and globalisation are the driving factors for language speaker decline since the late 20th century (Amano, et al., 2014). An article from Pearson (2014) adds to this by suggesting that the cultural domain of language is intimately tied to economic power. Therefore, unfortunately, the language of economically powerful nations override those over the weaker countries they infiltrate.

    Some of the figures you mention in regards to the rate at which we are losing languages (the potential loss of 2,900 language in the next century) made me wonder whether we are doing enough to save them. Pearson (2014) argues that it is unclear as to we go about preserving languages which face extinction. I would love to hear your suggestions for this. I am aware that current efforts include recording languages online for the purpose of teaching them, but do you think this is enough to cease, or simply reduce the dying of languages?

    I agree with your point that the decision of whether these endangered languages should be saved should down to the speakers, as it is these people who are most greatly affected. However, as somebody who studies language myself and understands the beauty of it, I can’t help but regard this as a huge shame.
    References
    References

    Amano, T., Sandel, B., Eager, H., Bulteau, E., Svenning, J.-C., Dalsgaard, B., Rahbek, C., Davies, R. Sutherland, W.,(2014). Global distribution and drivers of language extinsion risk. Proceedings of the Royal Society.
    Pearson, J. (2014, September 3). Globalization is a leading factor in the death of minority languages. Retrieved from Vice: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/pga3jm/globalization-is-a-leading-factor-in-the-death-of-minority-languages

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s