In the world today, there are around 7000 languages. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural organization (UNESCO) have recorded that 2,464 of these languages are rated from vulnerable to extinct (UNESCO, 2018). So, how do we know when a language is endangered or extinct?
Language is considered endangered, when there are a decreasing number of native speakers and the language is not being used frequently. According to UNESCO (2018) there are approximately 577 critically endangered languages worldwide.
Kulon-Pazeh, spoken in Taiwan, is an example of an endangered language. This language only has four remaining speakers who are currently trying to revive it, by teaching the youth the language to keep their culture and heritage alive (Inside Taiwan, 2015).
Language death, on the other hand, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, 2017) as “the process or phenomenon whereby a language, usually that of a cultural minority, disappears or falls into disuse.” The language of Yuki, based in Mendicino County, California (Balodis, 2016, p.14), is now a dead language. This is because despite conservation efforts, the last speaker, Arthur Anderson, passed away in 1983 (Balodis, 2016, p. 19).
So, should we actually be concerned about the rapid decline in the number of languages worldwide? Or can we all continue sleeping easy at night thinking that it doesn’t affect us? The majority answer is probably the latter, because the majority of the population (particularly speakers of the world’s major languages) do not think it affects them. Therefore, there is a lack of interest in dying languages. People have bigger concerns. Politics, education, families just to name a few.
Dalby (2003, p. 207) discusses Hawaiian as an endangered language. He suggests that with the loss of the language comes “the loss of Hawaiian political independence, the loss of culture, the loss of the natural environment, and – equally significant for our future – the loss of knowledge of what the local environment has to offer.” Without culture, who are we as people? Culture is intertwined with our identities as human beings. Without this sense of individuality, are we not all the same?
Languages also play a major role in the history of the speakers (Crystal, 2000, p. 40). This is evident through the connections between indigenous tribes and their ancestors. Some languages connect people to their ancestors and to their past. A native speaker of the language Kwakwaka’wakw, Vera Newman, accentuates how important her language is to her identity and how it separates her from contemporary society (Bell and Napoleon, 2008, p. 43). Another reason is that languages hold sections of history within them (Little, 2016). Crystal (2000, p. 40) states that “languages are repositories of history”. History is vital to existence as it contributes to the speakers’ identity and therefore guides their cultural views and customs. In losing these customs it is clear that, “[w]isdom unique to these linguistic communities becomes extinct with their languages” (Burridge and Bergs, 2017, p. 208).
On the other hand, is it possible that the decline in languages is improving worldwide communication and opening the doors for more trade, employment and immigration? Lingua francas are important with respect to this as they are “making direct communication possible where before it was difficult because of a language barrier” (Ostler, 2008, p. 2). When languages are lost due to the impact of the major world languages, it is clear that cultures that wouldn’t normally be able to communicate with the world, obtain this capability. Dalby (2003, p. 168) explores the idea of a “national language” and how a singular culture and language become the norm once the minority languages cease to exist. This is evident with the different variations of the Chinese language and how they are impacting countries in Eastern/Southern Asia (UNESCO, 2018). According to BBC News (Foster, 2012), there are around 840 million speakers of Mandarin worldwide. Due to the dominating, economic and political landscapes in the world today, there is a need for all minor countries that trade and have political ties with other countries, to know the major world languages.
Whilst there are many major advantages to everyone speaking one language, these appear to be outweighed by the disadvantages. A significant one of these is that without each country having their own unique languages and cultures there is no individuality or cultural diversity. If the world is to lose all of its indigenous languages to the top 20 dominant languages (Chinese, English, Arabic etc.), would the world become significantly blander?
HONOR WILSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK