Dying World Languages

More than half of the world’s approximately 6,000 languages are facing likely extinction within the next 50 years. In fact, it is estimated that a language dies every two weeks. Many of these languages still have thousands of living speakers, yet the languages are not being passed down to the next generation. Such languages are considered to be “dying” since eventually their last native speaker will die leaving no one left to carry on the language. National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project studied this phenomenon and named Northern Australia, Central South America, Canada’s Northwest Pacific Plateau, Eastern Siberia and the Southwest United States as areas where indigenous languages face the greatest peril. Even here in the US there are some 40 Native American languages still are spoken today in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.

There are many reasons why a language does not get passed down from one generation to another. However, in most cases it is the dominant language of the area that gradually overtakes the minor language in school, work and at home to a point where the speakers of that language no longer bother or find it necessary to pass along the language to their children. In other cases, language policies of the region speed the language’s demise in favor of the dominant language. Once a language is dead, it’s unlikely to ever be revived. Hebrew is the only language to be successfully revitalized as a national language once it had lost its native speakers.

The question is why should anyone care? The truth is that when a minor language dies and is replaced by a more dominant language, the world loses a piece of its cultural history, not that different from the extinction of an animal species. The culture of an entire people is tied to its language so more than just the language is being lost. Since the majority of the dying languages are not written down the oral traditions of thousands of years may be lost forever once the last speaker is gone. For this reason, linguists and cultural anthropologists are in a struggle to record the sounds, grammar and oral histories of as many of these languages as possible. No matter how widely spoken a language is, it is still vulnerable. A perfect example is Latin, which was a dominant language spoken throughout the Roman Empire, yet as the language spread throughout the region, over time it splintered into several different languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, Italian, etc.) and the mother language itself fell into disuse. Even though it is still learned by millions of students and used to a limited degree within the Catholic Church, there are no living native speakers of it. The lesson for us all is to be sure to pass along our native languages and cultures to our children.