Imagine you are in a quiz show and someone asks you to quickly name 5 languages. What would you come up? Probably your mothertongue and some of the big and popular languages. English, German, Spanish, French, Chinese. But do you know Lakota, Pirahã, Ainu, Guarani or Luxembourgish? No? Surprise, there are about 6000 languages in the world. Many only spoken only by small groups and threatened by extinction, others are spoken by millions of people, such as Guarani an indigenous language of South-America spoken by 4,6 Million people in Paraguay. Unfortunately, within a century 50 – 80% of these languages could disappear from the face of earth as they are endangered.
Endangered languages are under threat of disappearing because they are not taught anymore to children and the last speakers are slowly dying off. If that happens, they become exctinct languages. These are languages that are not spoken anymore in any community around the world. Some may have been recorded in writing or audiovisual media but many leave this world unnoticed, their last words dying with the last breath of the last speaker. There is a common misconception that talks about languages like Latin as dead languages, however linguistically it is very much alive in the form of its descendants such as Portuguese, Italian or Romanian. Latin is here defined as an earlier stage of these languages.
There are a number of reasons for languages to become endangered or extinct. Often they are under some type of pressure by another, dominant, language. If the minority language is associated with negative stereotypes, with being poor and outside of society, parents might choose to not teach their children to protect them from these negative associations or in the hope to give them better economic chances. Also, people often think that it might be confusing or too difficult for a child to learn more than one language.
Another reason is state supression. Still until the late 20th century many states had policies of assimilation towards minority groups. This often included forbidding schoolchildren to speak their native languages and to live their customs. Sometimes, for example in the US and Canada but also states like Norway, indigenous children were forced to attend boarding schools with the goal to ‚civilise‘ them. There they were forbidden of the use of their language and their customs. That led in many regions to a whole generation that could not speak their parents language anymore. Lastly, wars and displacement may completely destroy the community of speakers and, quite literally, wipe a language of the map.
Now you may wonder, what does it matter? Wouldn‘t we be better off speaking one language to be able to understand each other everywhere? Well, seeing that I wrote this article you might have guessed that I disagree with that stance. For one, language is intrinsically connected to culture. It is the expression of how a people thinks about the world, it contains the way they relate to each other and to their past and present. Language always relates to specific cultural practices, it connects communities to their past, via stories, tales and myths told in their language. They may have specific words for their dances, their rituals, their traditions. In that way language means identity. Take people‘s language and you will rob them of their identity.
And there‘s evidence that underlines the importance of being able to connect with ones origin and ones community. Australian government data shows a correlation between a widerspread use of aboriginal languages and community health. Young aboriginal people that speak an Indigenous language are generally less likely to drink and take drugs irresponsibly. In British Columbia, Canada, youth suicide rates in communities where many people still speak native languages, are more than six times lower. Of course that is not a direct result of speaking the language but the result of the community that comes from having a shared language and shared roots and customs.
Then, there is a proven benefit for children that grow up bilingualy. In a number of studies researchers found that bilingual people are usually better at analysing their surroundings, multitasking and problem-solving. Instead of being confusing for children one could compare learning a second language to an intense, long lasting work out for the brain. This of course does not only apply to endangered languages but it is a strong argument for parents to teach their children their language even if they see it as useless in a society that is dominated by another language.
Lastly, the loss of languages also is a loss for our understanding of the human cognition. Each language can teach us something about how the mind works, how language has evolved in the first place and how the human mind works in general. All this also has practical implications, for example in the development of AI, machine speech recognition and speech production. In developing new approaches to help people that lost their speaking capabilities after a stroke or approaches to language learning and teaching. And the more different languages we can observe, the better our understanding will be.
There is hope however! Around the world speakers of endangered languages raise their voices to revive their languages and teach the next generation of speakers. One such example is Cornish, a Celtic language in Cornwall in the very Southwest of England. It is spoken by only about 3000 people. It is on the celtic branch of the indo-european language tree and as such related to Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Around the 19th century the language had already been extinct by and far but it was revived over the course of the twenthieth century by reconstructing the language from old sources and popularising it again. Now there are again families where Children grow up with Cornish as the main language spoken at home. Revival efforts like this take place all around the globe in communities striving to preserve their language and heritage. Which just serves as proof that endangered languages can be preserved and that they are perceived as valuable and important by their communities.
How to say “I love you” in different endangered languages:
Cornish – My a‘th kar
Aleut – Txin yaxtakug
Kashubian – Kuechum ce
Northern Sami – Mun ráhkistan du
Venda – Ndi a ni funa
Seneca – Gönóöhgwa‘
Hawaiian – Aloha Au la ‘Oe
Rapa Nui – Hanga rahi au kia koe