Lost for Words
Many minority languages are on the danger list.In the Native American Navajo nation which sprawls across four states in the American south-west, the native language is dying. Most of its speakers are middle-age or elderly. Although many students take classes in Navajo, the schools are run in English. Street sign, supermarket goods and even their own newspaper are all in English. Not surprisingly, linguists doubt that any native speakers of Navajo will remain in a hundred years’ time.
Navajo is far from alone. Half the world’s 6,800 languages are likely to vanish within two generations - that’s one language lost every ten days. Never before has the planet’s linguistic diversity shrunk at such a pace. “At the moment, we are heading for about three or four languages dominating the world”, says Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading. “It’s a mass extinction, and whether we will ever rebound from the lost is difficult to know.’
Isolation breeds linguistic diversity as a result, the world is peppered with languages spoken by only a few people. Only 250 language have more than a million speaker, and at least 3,000 have fewer than 2,500. It is not necessarily these small languages that are about to disappear. Navajo is considered endangered despite having 150,000 speakers. What makes a language endangered is not that the number of speakers, but how old they are. If it is spoken by children it is relatively safe. The critically endangered languages are those that are only spoken by the elderly, according to Michael Krauss, director of the Alassk Native Language Center in Fairblanks.
Why do people reject the language of their parent? It begins with a crisis of confidence, when a small community find itself alongside a larger, wealthier society, says Nicholas Ostler of Britain’s Foundation for Endangered Languages, in Bath. ‘People lose faith in their culture’ he says. ‘When the next generation reaches their teens, they might not want to be induced into the old traditions.’
The change is not always voluntary. Quite often, governments try to kill off a minority language by banning its use in public or discouraging its use in school, all to promote national unity. The former US policy of running Indian reservation in English, for example, effectively put languages such as Navajo on the danger list. But Salikoko Mufwene, who chairs the Linguistics Department at the University of Chicago, argues that the deadliest weapon is not government policy but economic globalisation. ‘Native Americans have not lost pride in their language, but they have had to adapt to socio-economic pressures’ he say. ‘They can not refuse to speak English if most commercial activity is in English". But are languages worth saving? At the very least, there is a loss of data for the study of languages and their evolution, which relies on comparisons between languages, both living and dead. When an unwritten and unrecorded language disappears, it is lost to science.
Language is also intimately bond up with culture, so it may be difficult to reserve one without the other. ‘If a person shifts from Navajo to English, they lose something' Mufwene says. ‘Moreover, the loss of diversity may also deprive us of different ways of looking at the world’ say Pagel. There is mounting evidence that learning a language produces physiological changes in brain. ‘Your brain and mine are difference from the brain of some one, who speaks French, for instance’ Pagel says, and this could affect our thoughts and perceptions. ‘The patterns and connections we make among various concepts may be structured by the linguistic habits of our community.’
So despite linguists’ best efforts, many languages will disappear over the next century. But a growing interest in cultural identity may prevent the direst predictions from coming true. ‘The key to fostering diversity is for people to learn their ancestral tongue, as...