How can we save them.
There are hundreds of languages spoken all over the world and many of them are on the verge of extinction. Over the last century around 400 languages have gone extinct and many linguists estimate that around 50% of the world’s remaining 7000 languages will be gone by the end of this century. The top 10 languages in the world claim about half of the world’s population in conversations.
Many languages are having only a handful of speakers remaining. Even if few people speak a language,they may live so far apart that they may not converse with each other. Without practice even a native language will slowly fade from one’s mind. So when they meet each other after few years they would struggle for right words to keep the conversation going. This is how languages slowly die out.
According to UNESCO any language spoken by less than 10,000 people is considered to be a dying language. As an example there are 780 languages in India and 600 out of them are considered endangered.
In 1971, the government took decision that any language spoken by less than 10,000 people need not be put in the official list of languages. Around 250 languages have already died in the past 60 years
Similarly most of the minority languages in USA and Canada are endangered. When the Europeans arrived in Australia there were 300 aboriginal languages spoken around the country. Since that time 100 of them have gone extinct and 95% of the remaining is also on the verge of extinction.
There are a few reasons why some languages gain popularity while the others get marginalized.Social dominance of one group of people leads to the language of that group becoming more popular in the society. Like English has become more popular all over the world due to the colonial rule or in the past Sanskrit became popular in India due to dominance of speakers of Sanskrit.
Coming back to the present; as an example in some states in India people speak three languages; like their mother tongue at home, English in office and Hindi in the marketplace. Since Hindi is the most commonly used language in the marketplace it has become the dominant language as it is spoken and understood by majority of people.
Where majority of the people speak one language, it becomes the key to getting jobs and education opportunities. Many times in the immigrant communities parents decide not to teach their children their heritage language, which they think would be a hindrance to success in their life.
Often the speakers of minority languages have suffered persecution. Like when the native American children were sent to boarding schools in USA and Canada they were forbidden to speak their native language.
Now we come to the next question- What happens when a language dies?
Languages have risen and fallen in prominence throughout history. Its impact is discussed below:
· Every language is connected to local wisdom and knowledge about medicinal secrets, ecology, local climate, weather patterns, artistic and spiritual history. They are also a rich source of information on the plants and animals in that area. The connect with that location gets disturbed.
· The climate change has had effect throughout our history. It has led to drought or a rise in sea level. This has led to loss of many languages as people migrate to safer region.When people settle in new regions they follow new traditions and also a new language.
The tragedy in all this is that people will not be able to speak in their first language, in which they learned how to describe the world. Slowly they may remain to be one of the few speakers of their mother tongue.
· Resource planners and national governments lose accumulated wisdom regarding the management of marine and land resources in fragile ecosystems in a particular area.
· In the past some of the languages were lost but were born again anew. But the world is a much changed place. The dominant languages are expanding at the cost of indigenous languages leading to disappearance of many of the local languages.
Now another question comes to our mind. Why should we worry of dying languages when it is always survival of the fittest?
This may sound true when the language is spoken in one corner of the world and that too by a few people. But we must always remember that languages have connection to human heritage. Writing is a recent phenomenon and it exists for only one third of the world’s languages.
So language is a main way to convey poems, songs and community stories. Many traditions would be lost if their language disappears, without being recorded.
There are efforts being made by linguists to document and archive some of the disappearing languages. This includes making dictionaries, recording history and translating oral stories. If the documentation is good, there are chances that some of these languages may be revived in future.
Also the support of technology is being taken in these conservation efforts. For example for a language called Cherokee a version of Windows 8 is available and also a Cherokee app is being used. These efforts are helping in revitalization of the language.
Due to the disappearance of unwritten languages some of the cultural heritage would be lost.
A planned effort and effective implementation of language policies can go a long way in revitalizing many disappearing languages and passing on to the younger generation. UNESCO’s Endangered Language Program is to support experts, communities and governments for monitoring and assessment of language status and trends. In the end it would be good for the humanity to save the disappearing languages as they are a link to our history, traditions and culture.