It is estimated that an entire language dies every 14 days and that by next century more than half of the world's 7000 current languages will cease to exist.
For many, this merely represents the cycle of evolution and progress—but what is lost forever when a language becomes extinct?
Spoken language found its roots in Africa tens of thousands of years ago. A growing population meant social organisation and sharing became necessary, so our brains and vocal tracts grew considerably to enable speech. Since then, our language has developed in three different ways: through communities creating new words, mixtures of two or more parent languages and progressively from one mother language. But just as many languages have been born, along the way many have fallen out of use and died.
Language endangerment is not widely known but it is incredibly important to slow it down. UNESCO (the United Nations Organisations for Education, Science and Culture) has created an 'atlas' of the world's languages that outlines how relatively vulnerable each one is. Languages are only considered 'safe' if the younger generations are learning them naturally. Therefore, even when there are many speakers of a language, if no children are learning it then it is still considered at risk. Currently, only 10% of the world’s languages fall into the 'safe' category. The remaining are being documented, and, where possible, taught, to prevent them being lost forever.
The biggest killer of our languages is cultural assimilation. Communities become bilingual by force or necessity and eventually, the dominant language takes over. While this has happened throughout history as communities become more multicultural and mobile the rate of decline has begun increasing dramatically. Governments have been the biggest influence here, by setting the dominant language for business and schooling. Often, to have any influence or opportunities, one needs to speak the chosen language (think Arabic over Egyptian in Egypt; or English in many countries) so the use of the native tongue falls out of favour. Many elders of such communities fail to pass on the native language, as they feel it could limit their children—the language simply isn't considered to be as useful or valuable.
Unfortunately, these lines of thinking have major flaws. Children can learn two or more languages from birth effortlessly and along with each language, they learn new ways of looking at the world. By letting these languages fall by the wayside, the unique perspectives and traditions of each culture are lost. Many old languages have connections with the natural and cultural world that are only just beginning to be understood by Western thinking. An example of this is the language of the Seri Indians, who are indigenous to the Gulf of California in Mexico. There are as few as 650 Seri speakers left, as the community must speak Spanish in order to obtain basic life necessities such as water, which is trucked into their town. However, the Seri language has more than 50 words for family kinship, and words that have no appropriate translation. Scientists are also currently learning about plant behaviour from their wealth of ancient knowledge.
Another critically endangered language is that of the Euchee Indians of Oklahoma in the United States. They have only four elderly fluent speakers, who are fervently trying to save their dying language. Euchee is unusual in the fact it is a 'language isolate', meaning it has no connections with any other language. 'Outsiders' have never learned it, although some words were borrowed for local place names. The language has two distinct forms of speech—one for men and another for women. It has more phonetic sounds than English, and many layers of tense, structure and grammar that make it incredibly difficult to master. The last male speaker has a huge weight on his shoulders. At 86, K'asa Henry Washburn is the only one who can pass on the male version of the language. He drives 10 miles every day to teach it to Euchee children and has vowed to continue to do so for as long as he physically can.
If these languages lose the fight for survival, the loss of cultural identity would be profound. In addition to material artefacts, any culture comprises beliefs and worldly concepts, values, and guidelines for behaviour, as well as the 'plan of living' that is passed on from generation to generation, which describes how different aspects of culture are to be continued. All of these are articulated through and contained within language in very specific ways. Cultures are changing just as they always have done—customs change with the times—but the essence of a culture's uniqueness lives within its people and their ability to think and communicate from the position of their own worldview, represented by their language. When these hugely important factors go missing, it isn't just the communities themselves that suffer. The world loses the knowledge that was contained in that language, and the world's cultural diversity slowly becomes impoverished.
The Māori language of New Zealand is currently classed as 'vulnerable' and represents another culture that is important to save. As Kylie Brown, a representative for the Māori Language Commission, explains, "Languages are the carriers for the culture within which they are spoken and are therefore the only vehicle for their own ideal cultural transmission. Teaching Māori to our younger generations is existential. If we don't transmit the carrier for our cultural memory, our knowledge, our philosophical worldview, then our cultural fabric, the stuff that makes us 'us', becomes significantly weakened."
For example, Brown continues, "Māori language and cultural values [have] imprinted the New Zealand way of life. Place and land feature names are an example, capturing Māori histories, their life and events from a time long ago, carrying the culture and memory of our nation's history." If the meanings of these words—their stories—were lost, the gap in New Zealand's history would be significant. We wouldn't have the knowledge of why particular places were special or what happened to lead them to be named as such.
This is also a concern with cultural concepts, expressed through language, that relate to cultural heritage. For example, the twin concepts of taonga and tapu are incredibly important within Māori culture, as they signify the sacredness of certain people, places or objects, and the concomitant protocols around interacting with them. If these words were no longer in use, thousands of protected archaeological and historical places and objects could be treated sacrilegiously, and their stories forgotten. Antique weapons and pendants that are passed down through families would cease to inspire reverence, and with it their true meaning would be lost.
Language preservation efforts are increasing and there have been successes already. The Māori language is still classed as vulnerable but its status continues to improve through the introduction of Kōhanga Reo, or 'language nests' for children and language classes for adults. The nests take an immersion-based approach, with young children spending their early years with older members of the community, communicating only in Māori. The Hawai'ian community also modelled their schooling systems on this approach, with great success. In the 1920s, the Hawaiian language ceased to be spoken after English became mandatory in schools. By the early 1980s, fewer than 50 children spoke their mother tongue. Nowadays, children can learn their language in preschool and continue by taking many of their classes in Hawai'ian right through until university.
Another preservation programme is the Enduring Voices Project, a joint venture between The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the National Geographic Society Mission programs. The project aims to increase awareness of the language endangerment issue, document endangered languages and provide support and resources for indigenous communities to revitalise their languages. They focus on language hotspots: regions of the world with the highest level of linguistic diversity and endangerment, as well as the least-studied languages.
Technology has helped incredibly with these goals, with the use of cameras, film and audio allowing elders' stories and traditions to be archived. The Enduring Voices Project uses customised language software to record these oral treasures, and language technology kits are then created for the communities. Some forward-thinking communities are further harnessing the power of technology by teaming up with large companies to create video games and language apps to encourage their younger members of the community to learn.
Most notable is the award-winning game 'Never Alone', created by the Iñupiat people, native to Alaska. Nearly 40 Alaskan Native elders, storytellers and community members contributed to the popular game. A young Iñupiat girl and her Arctic fox are off on a mission, and along the way encounter stories of her indigenous folklore. It is the first of many planned ‘World Games’ that delve into the traditional lore of rich and unique cultures to share them in an authentic and engaging manner.
There is hope for the future of our world's languages as communities are becoming more aware of how important their vocabularies are; how rich, diverse and imbued with cultural memory, ideological thought and philosophical worldview. Some of these views will inevitably be lost but with the help of technology and the dedication of those willing to do the legwork, we may be able to prolong the life of the ideas and cultures kept within these languages.