By Mourine Breiner
Language extinction is a slow but sure process. My interest in this topic was rekindled after I watched a performance of Lena Herzog’s “Last Whispers” at the Kennedy Center in DC on February 24, 2019. The work is a three part immersive audio/visual/virtual reality oratorio on extinct and endangered languages. It is comprised of both spoken and sung recordings of about 40 extinct and endangered languages among which are:
1. Ahom, China
2. Ayoreo, Paraguay
3. Bathari, Oman
4. Lxcatec, Mexico
5. Dalabon, Australia
6. Great Andamanese, India
7. Ingrian, Russia
8. Kotiria, Brasil
9. Koyukon, Alaska
10. Ongota, Ethiopia
The presentation reawakened for me the sad reality of endangered languages. Consequently, I could not help but reflect on the causes and effects of the gradual disappearance of our linguistic diversity.
The reality of language endangerment and extinction
According to National Geographic, one language dies every 14 days. Based on that trend, UNESCO predicts that almost half of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken on earth are expected to disappear by the next century. The catalog of endangered languages of UNESCO’s Endangered Languages Project indicates that there are about 3000 endangered languages in 180 countries. Approximately 3000 of the world’s 7000 languages have fewer than 10,000 speakers and are in danger of extinction while over 400 are on the verge of extinction. The Amazon rainforest, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, Australia and Southeast Asia are expected to lose the most languages. The Explore Language Map on this link is a vivid representation of the severity of language extinction.
Major causes of language extinction
Knowledge of and fluency in a language are largely dependent on one’s environment and education. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, remote languages are losing their former protection, and are giving way to languages that dominate world communication and commerce like Mandarin, English, Russian, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic. Languages of limited diffusion cannot withstand the competition with languages that represent education and overall success. Some languages are even associated with a lower social class and prestige, thereby reducing the interest in learning them.
Climate change, urbanization and the quest for better lives force linguistically diverse rural communities to migrate and assimilate into new communities, cultures and languages. Their original languages are lost in the process. In addition, most remote languages remain unwritten and consequently are not preserved; 85% of languages in general are yet to be documented. When the transfer of a language to younger generations is discontinued, languages are bound to die with the passing of older members of the community. Another proven factor is political persecution. Dozens of distinct dialects, for example, are on the verge of extinction about half a century after China annexed Tibet.
Effects of language extinction
Oral traditions and expressions are used to convey knowledge, beliefs, arts, value systems, laws, custom, traditions and modes of life. Language and culture are, therefore, integral parts of a community’s shared heritage and are believed to be the footprints of our identity. The loss of a language is a loss of cultural and social values as well as identity and the potential for diversity. With every dying language goes the knowledge of and the ability to understand the culture of its speakers. Because speakers of smaller languages generally live in proximity to nature, an endangered or extinct language also has a direct effect on the transfer of traditional and biodiversity knowledge across generations.
Can we preserve our endangered linguistic ecosystem?
Although the forces of endangerment or extinction may sometimes seem stronger than our efforts, there are ways to curb, halt or stop the inevitability of this process. Preservation through translation, cataloging, documenting and storing available information and resources both in audio and visual forms will go a long way in saving endangered languages. The role of technology in this process cannot be over-emphasized. Fortunately, we have the internet and a myriad of platforms and media at our disposal such as online classes, podcasts, dictionaries, YouTube, the TV, and the media. Wikitongues, The Endangered Language Fund and Cultural Survival are examples of great initiatives in that direction.
Promoting and teaching younger generations will go a long way to preserving and revitalizing languages. The will and determination of communities and their pride in their languages, cultural heritage and identity are contributing factors to language preservation. On a larger scale, when the language, culture and identity of minority-speaker communities are respected by national governments, languages of limited diffusion have a better potential for survival. The promotion of bi- or multi-bilingualism through individual and national efforts has proven successful in various regions. While there may not be one single promising solution, mankind can try, just as we seek to preserve our natural environment.
Mourine Breiner, DBA Beyond Words Solutions is a full-time freelance French-English translator based in Dublin, Ohio. She has been translating since 2004 and specializes in international development and business translation. She holds a Master’s Degree in French-English Translation, a BA in French/English Bilingual Studies and certificates in Computer Assisted Translation and Website Localization and Translation. Prior to becoming a full-time translator, she worked for the public and private sectors including the Department of State, the Swiss Cooperation for International Development and two private companies. Mourine is a founding member of Language Solutions for Africa, a collective of linguists with expertise in content for Africa.