Nearly every two weeks, a language dies off completely.
That’s according to National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis, citing a rather alarming statistic. He also discusses how languages help to shape the way we think and look at the world, and how sad it is that around fifty percent of the languages spoken in the world are no longer being taught to children.
Take a moment and think about that. Half of all the languages remaining in the world aren’t being learned by the younger generation. When elders die off, what happens to that language?
With about 3,500 of the world’s 7,000 known spoken languages in danger of disappearing over the next hundred years, that’s the question that an incredibly large number of cultures need to ask. And the problem is even worse than those numbers would indicate.
Every few years, an Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing is released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It places endangered languages into one of five categories: unsafe, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered, and extinct. What do these mean?
● Unsafe – if children speak it, they only do so at home
● Definitely endangered – children do not learn their native tongue as a first language at home
● Severely endangered – children don’t learn the language at all and don’t understand it; their parents understand it, but grandparents and other elders are the only ones who still speak it
● Critically endangered – neither children nor parents speak or understand it, only grandparents and other elders
● Extinct – there is no one living who still speaks the language
Of those 3,000 or so endangered languages, around 400 have 50 or fewer speakers in the entire world, and 200 of those have 10 or fewer speakers. They are dying out, and with them a large piece of the culture that they reflected and described. And that’s from back in 2009 – since then, more languages have surely been added to the list.
What are these languages? Well, most of the ones closest to extinction you’ve probably never heard about. Like California’s Wintu language, Australia’s Aboriginal tongue of Amurdak, or Siletz Dee-ni in Orgeon. Each of those languages is down to only a speaker or two, and in some cases, those individuals are only semi-fluent.
When a culture has become so ravaged, it can be difficult to understand its value and what changes might come about from losing it. A better example, perhaps, is that of the Aka language, spoken by the Aka people in a tiny rustic village in Northeastern India. And by Aka people, we’re talking about somewhere around 2,000 people who still speak the language, few enough to land Aka on the endangered list even though the village’s natural surroundings keep it somewhat protected from foreign-tongued invaders.
To give you an example of how language and culture intersect, you should know that there is no word for “job” in Aka. Rather, the people there grow their own food and even build their own houses. Wealth isn’t measured in money but mithan, a type of Himalayan cattle – a bride that costs eight mithan, for example, would be a real stunner.
National Geographic recently profiled the Aka people through the eyes of Jesuit priest running a school there. As an example of how their language has changed his worldview, he referenced how a word they use to express wisdom and respect is similar to one in his native tongue that is meant to offend. Though he originally had trouble with them calling him this word, now he relishes it.
In other cultures, their art and music is tied into their language so deeply that it can’t be explained, described, or performed accurately without the native tongue. Still other groups don’t have numeric systems in their language, calling into question one of the fundamental beliefs about how humans think and organize the world.
When talking about trying to preserve the language of a culture and a country, it is not merely that we are hoping to protect a single group of people and their heritage, but keep something from being lost to all of us. There’s a lot that can be learned from the differences in languages, but if they disappear, oftentimes they are gone for good.
Patrick Del Rosario is part of the team behind Open Learning Australia, one of Australia’s leading providers of Distance education. When not working, Patrick enjoys blogging about career and business. Patrick is also a photography enthusiast and is currently running a photography studio in the Philippines. If you have a blog and would like free content. You can find him on Google+ or drop a line at patrick (at) oc.edu.au.