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
Juanita, P. (2008). Who were the Taushiro? Retrieved January 25, 2018, from: https://tau-shiro.weebly.com/
Mosely, C. (2010). Atlas of the world’s languages in danger. Paris. France: UNESCO Publishing.