THE PROBLEM – LANGUAGE DEATH
CarolinLeeds at October 23rd, 2015
THE PROBLEM – LANGUAGE DEATH
By now, it is well documented that languages are vanishing at a rate that has never been seen before. Since 1500 AD, the world has lost about 15% of the 7000 languages we think were spoken then, and the pace is quickening dramatically. In just the last few dozens of American Indian languages have died and the story is being played out in Australia, South America, New Guinea, and Africa.
And it’s not just the little languages that are dying. A hundred years ago, Breton had a million speakers, but is now struggling for survival. Thirty years ago, Navajo had over 100,000 speakers and now faces an uncertain future.
We recognize easily the danger in losing biodiversity, but is the loss of language – and thus cultural – diversity really a problem? For all we know, one language and one culture might be just fine. Why not, say, English or Chinese for everyone?
For 40,000 years, since the beginning of modern Homo sapiens, we humans have been a great evolutionary success story. From perhaps half a million of us, living in just a few spots, we have expanded to about 6 billion people, occupying deserts, tundra, tropical forests, and high mountains. During this spectacular “adaptive radiation,” as biologists call it, we acquired a stock of knowledge about survival in all these environments, and that knowledge was stored in all the languages that developed along the way. And now those languages are vanishing.
Let’s be really clear about this. Language diversity did not cause the evolutionary success of humans. But the knowledge generated by all those successfully adapting cultural groups over the millennia is stored in the languages now spoken around the world and the knowledge base is under siege. Of the 6000 languages spoken today, fewer than 300 cover 5.5 billion speakers. All the rest of the languages, 95% of them, are spoken by just 300 million people.
Think of it: 5% of the people in the world speak 95% of the world’s languages, which means that 95% of the cultural heterogeneity of the planet – 95% of the differences in ways of seeing the world – is vested in under 5% of the people, and the problem gets worse each year.
One take on this, I suppose, is that language die-off is just part of natural evolution, and nothing to worry about. Neither the language of Jesus nor the language of Cesar is spoken by many people today and nothing catastrophic seems to have happened. Why worry now?
This is a high-risk game. I wouldn’t be worried if we had 20 or 30 Earth-like planets, unlimited time, and god-like power to test whether language diversity was really good for human evolutionary success. On some planets we could ordain that language diversity remain high, while on others it would decline toward zero. Then, over a few hundred years, we’d see whether the decline in diversity placed the survival of humanity on any planet at risk.
And we’d also learn how to rescue the knowledge from each language by translating it into a widely spoken languages. But what we’re doing now is an experiment to find out if eliminating language diversity is harmful to our survival as a species. With no planets to fall back on, it’s truly a reckless experiment. It should be stopped now.
THE SOLUTION –HOW TO PRESERVE LANGUAGES
Fortunately, there are a lot of really interesting things going on. Linguists are recording texts by the last speakers of languages across the world. Linguists are also helping indigenous peoples from the Amazon to New Guinea to write dictionaries and grammar books so that school children who are participating in bilingual education programs will have basic tools for learning their languages. Native speakers of Mayan and other indigenous languages are getting degrees in linguistics and joining the effort to document those languages.
Until a few years ago, Hualapai, Maori, and native Hawaiian children were no longer learning their ancestral languages. Now, those children in Arizona, New Zealand, and Hawaii are in total immersion programs and coming out as fully fluent young speakers of those languages. In California, some American Indian groups have set up what are known as master-apprentice programs so that older, fluent speakers of Indian languages can teach younger people in their tribes to become fluent, too.
There is one more thing that works. The major languages of the world have great literary traditions. Most languages have no literary tradition. In today’s, world, no books means language death. This is the goal of CELIAC. the Centro Editorial de Literatura Indígena, Asociación Civil or the Center for Native Language Publishing, in Oaxaca, Mexico (Asociación Civil means ‘not-for-profit corporation’ in Mexico.)