Mass extinction: half of world’s 6,000 languages in danger of disappearing by 2010
Some people may argue that extinction is a part of the natural order. That if future dialogues are destined to occur in one of only 5 languages, then so be it. It’s survival of the fittest.
Linguists estimate that eventually all communication will be expressed in English, Chinese, Spanish, French or Arabic. Globalization has accelerated the rate of language extinction, while increasing the influence of the English language.
While only 350 million people (out of 6 billion worldwide) claim English as their first language, millions more use English as a second language and another billion are being taught the language. There’s no stopping this phenomenon.
English is the language of computers and commerce.
So what’s with the sudden onslaught of articles (here and here) crying out in alarm at the steady decline in the number of spoken languages? What’s the problem?
According to the Worldwatch Institute, half of all languages accounted for are spoken by fewer than 2500 people. Languages need at least 100,000 speakers in order to pass from one generation to the next, claims the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
When a language disappears, an invaluable resource is lost to linguists and anthropologists. It becomes impossible to trace a group’s cultural history or movements from one region to another because the stories passed through oral tradition die with the last speaker. Since language diversity often exists in locations of biological diversity, scientists lose valuable knowledge pertaining to the plants and animals native to the area.
I was blessed with the opportunity of growing up in a bilingual household. After I enrolled in American public schools, my teachers gently persuaded my parents to stop speaking their native language (Portuguese) at home and focus on English. “So as not to confuse her…..”
The Portuguese language is the cornerstone of my culture. There are words that cannot be translated into English… words like “saudade.” I lost much of my vocabulary and have struggled to improve upon what I still remember. And I know that if I forget the language and stories and songs, then a unique part of that culture will be lost. A different version might be passed on in a new language, but the original footprint will disappear.
But I’m fortunate. There are 5 million people who speak Portuguese around the globe. I can’t imagine what it would be like to know I was one of the last to speak Maori or Eyak or Navajo.
How many people do you know who can speak a second language?