One language dies every two weeks.
This trend isn’t about to go away, either: about half of the world’s languages are at risk of extinction by the year 2100, due to increasing globalization. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), at least 43% of the 6,000 world languages are already endangered. UNESCO created International Mother Language Day, celebrated each year on February 21, to increase awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and foster international understanding. This holiday reminds us that all languages, whether used by millions or just one person, have value.
Why do languages deserve preservation? To learn more about the important role they play in our world, we examined how languages are disappearing, and why people are fighting to save them.
How are languages going extinct?
Both social changes and extreme events spur language extinction. Some communities feel pressure to integrate into a more prominent culture for economic, social, religious, or military reasons. For example, about 40% of the world’s population does not have access to education in their mother tongue. Some of these languages include Welsh, Navajo, and Rohingya. To give their children better economic opportunities, some parents choose only to teach their children a mainstream language.
Language extinction can also happen quickly through natural disasters, genocide, and aging and shrinking communities. Without new speakers, communities can lose their native language in an alarmingly short time.
Why does it matter?
Once a language disappears, we lose much of the history, culture, and heritage of the people who spoke it. We lose important information such as geographical knowledge, local traditions, and unique ideas that could help us improve the way we communicate and make the world a better place. For example, Latin has long been a dead language, but some schools still teach it. Because there are no native speakers left, no one can tell us how it should sound or explain the meaning of certain words and figures of speech. Teachers and students have to work much harder to interpret the written text that has been left behind.
We must take a proactive stance on preservation to retain the knowledge of a community. Getting a head start is especially important for oral languages that don’t have any written records. The Soqotri language of the isolated island of Soqotra, near Yemen, was unwritten until Russian linguist Vitaly Naumkin created a script for it in 2014. Naumkin spent decades studying and recording Soqotri speakers and heritage, preserving Soqotra culture and obtaining insight to the ancient Middle Eastern world. While the challenge of language preservation may seem overwhelming, it is far from impossible. Governments, professional organizations, and local communities are joining together to protect and promote linguistic diversity.
What is being done to help?
Non-profit organizations and government entities are working together to develop multilingual education programs and foster online linguistic diversity. These efforts support sustainable linguistic diversity by integrating endangered languages into current systems. Organizations such as The Endangered Language Fund and Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages are also spreading awareness by publishing research papers, conducting linguistic fieldwork, and collaborating with native speakers to create digital records.
Individuals are even taking matters into their own hands. Over the past few decades, two Guinean brothers designed the first writing system for the African language Fulfulde. The brothers enabled Fulfulde speakers worldwide to connect online, increase adult literacy, and access education in their native tongue. Their efforts reflect a common desire among communities to sustain their unique cultures and heritage.
How does this impact your organization?
Do you have a program to offer speakers of uncommon languages access to your services? Are you equipped to provide interpretation for them on demand? We can help. Contact us to learn more.