Imagine, just for a moment, that you are the last native speaker of English. No one else you know speaks your language. You don’t see any point in teaching it to your kids, because no one will ever speak it to them, either. Imagine the loss you would feel. All those un-translatable English-language ideas – a stiff upper lip, a stitch in time, a New York minute – would disappear. No one would ever sing “baa baa black sheep” or “ring-a-ring o’roses” again. All those minute clues about history, culture, collective memory – all gone.
There are around 6,000 living languages in the world – and at least half of those are under serious threat. In every part of the world, languages are disappearing. In fact, one scientist has said that languages are facing a bigger risk of extinction than birds and mammals. Professor Steve Sutherland of the University of East Anglia calculated that the past 500 years have seen 4.5 per cent of languages die out – compared with 1.3 per cent of birds, and 1.9 per cent of mammals.
Some 300 languages have more than a million speakers. They’re the healthy ones – Mandarin Chinese, English and Spanish are the most widely spoken. Ten major languages are the mother tongues of almost half the world’s population. But the median size for languages in the world is just 6,000 – so half the languages in the world are spoken by that number or fewer.
Languages, like so many other forms of human expression, come and go, and thousands have done exactly that without leaving any trace of ever having existed. Only a very few – Basque, Greek, Hebrew, Latin among them – have lasted more than 2,000 years. But it seems that the pace of their disappearance is becoming ever quicker. UNESCO claims that the rate of language extinction has now reached ten every year.
The Ethnologue, a database of all the languages spoken in the world, claims that 417 languages are spoken by so few people that they are in the final stages of becoming extinct. Spare a thought for the one living speaker of Luo in Cameroon, the single remaining exponent of Klamath in Oregon, the handful of people that speak the Saami Pite language in Sweden and Norway.
Where once languages flourished in small isolated areas, there are now very few that are not in regular contact with the rest of the world. Speaking an internationally recognised language is a clear advantage for people who want to make the most of the opportunities contact brings. Eventually, people may not realise their children are not learning their native tongue.
Languages may also be lost through migration, as people move from small rural communities to urban centres, or when environments are destroyed by the search for oil or timber. Natural disasters can also devastate populations, and along with them, their language – like the speakers of the Paulohi language in Makulu, Indonesia, of whom all but 50 were killed by an earthquake and tidal wave.
Governments also have a case to answer in the extinction of languages. The perceived need to establish “official languages”, in which a country would educate its children, conducts its political affairs and carry out its business, had a disastrous effect on many small languages. Up until the 1970s, Aborigines in Australia were forbidden to speak in their own tongues – which once numbered more than 400. Now, according to the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing, only about 25 Aboriginal languages are still commonly spoken.
What is lost if a language is lost?
There are some who argue that the extinction of languages is merely a symptom of the gradual evolution of our species, where universal communication is prized, and increasing homogeneity is just an evolutionary side-effect. Obviously there could be great benefits if everyone in the world spoke the same language – some industries already reflect this, with English a must for pilots and air traffic controllers. But it’s clear that there is far more at stake than mere convenience. As languages are lost, whole ways of life and sets of knowledge may be lost along with them. Complex religious and social rituals disappear, oral histories die through lack of telling. Information about plants, animals and environments gathered through generations may never be passed on. And the richness of human invention, our unique gift of talking about what we see around us, would be much the poorer.
Put simply, language expresses something about identity, about our place in the world. Ani Rauhihi, a Maori teacher in New Zealand’s North island, sums it up: “If you grow up not speaking your language, you won’t know who you are”.
The need for a feeling of identity and connection to one’s past is a big factor in the resurgence of the Maori language. Maori is the language of New Zealand’s native population and was the predominant language spoken there before the arrival of the European settlers. But by the early 20th century children were punished for speaking Maori at school and very few schools taught the language. By the 1980s less than 20 per cent of Maori knew enough of the language to be regarded as native speakers, and many urbanised Maori people had no contact at all with their language and culture. Now one in four Maori people in New Zealand speaks the Maori language and around 40% of Maori pre-schoolers are enrolled in total-immersion schools. Maori is also an official language.
It is even possible for a language considered dead to be revived into a flourishing and dynamic tongue. Hebrew ceased to be used as spoken language in about AD 200, but continued to be used by Jews as a “sacred tongue”. In the late 19th century, a revival movement headed by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda aimed t re-establish Hebrew as a spoken language to provide a common tongue for Jews. The new language came to be a key factor in the Zionist movement, so that when Jews moved back to their homeland they would have a common language. Ben-Yehuda coined thousands of new words and pioneered Hebrew usage in home and school. Now Hebrew is spoken by more than 5 million people, 81 per cent of Israel’s population.
It seems the world may be starting to realise what is about to lose. UNESCO is actively promoting multilingualism and the need to preserve intangible aspects of culture as well as the more traditional monuments and national parks. Joseph Poth, head of its languages division, has spoken of the need for “trilingualism” – we should all speak our mother tongue, a “neighbour” language and an international language. Even teaching an endangered language in schools creates a rescue system, he says.
It may be too late for the languages where only a few speakers remain. Chances are they’re elderly, they speak their mother tongue very little and have forgotten many of the words they once knew. But it seems that at last the value of these languages is being recognised, and that is the first step to stemming the tide of loss.
From "50 Facts That Should Change The World"
by Jessica Williams. Icon Books.