Why languages should not be lost forever

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 February, 2009, 12:00am

The study of languages belongs to linguists. But the reason so many tongues face extinction while others thrive has nothing to do with their grammar or intrinsic worth. Rather, they more often reflect the power or powerlessness of groups that speak them. Unesco, the United Nations agency, has just published a new electronic map and database showing endangered languages around the world. The project amazes us with the world's language diversity; it also saddens us to see so many are in danger of becoming extinct or have already disappeared. Those who speak threatened languages usually belong to minorities and marginalised groups.

Linguists and philosophers say language shapes the way we see the world and our place in society. If so, the disappearing tongues represent world views and ways of seeing that will be lost to us forever. Humankind's mental or spiritual resources become the poorer for it. It should not surprise anyone that two of the world's dominant languages, English and Putonghua, are spoken by people who belong to two of the world's most powerful economies.

It seems once the number of speakers of a language falls below a certain threshold, it becomes difficult for it to survive. Out of more than 6,000 languages spoken today, about 2,500 are on the endangered list. Unesco notes 199 languages today are each spoken by less than a dozen people. The number was 200 last year, but Marie Smith Jones, Alaska's last native speaker of Eyak, died and took the aboriginal language with her.

In the 21st century, an increasing number of people are moving from poorer to richer economies; and from rural to urban centres. Migrants and their children are in danger of losing their native tongues as they are desperate to adapt and win acceptance. Some countries such as New Zealand and Canada have adopted an enlightened policy to promote the languages of minorities. Just as people who speak several languages have greater intellectual resources at their disposal, so societies that can accommodate more than a dominant language are the richer for it.