Why do languages go extinct?
The number of languages spoken around the world changes throughout history, as a natural part of human cultural evolution. However, both the vast number of languages that are disappearing, as well as the speed at which this is happening, are unique to modern times. It is estimated that one language is lost to the world every one to three months. Some scenarios estimate that up to 90% of the approximately 7,000 documented languages that are currently spoken might be lost by the end of this century. Why are so many languages in danger?
In all parts of the world, communities are losing their native language under pressure from national languages or the dominant languages of commerce. It is not a trivial task to predict the future of any language, since this is determined by a complex interaction between many historical and socio-cultural factors. Nevertheless, a recent study analysed data on 6,500 languages to try and predict future language endangerment, and the authors found some interesting worldwide patterns.
Strikingly, the authors found that one important predictor of language endangerment is formal education: the longer children receive education, the more likely it is that they lose their native language if that language is different from the school language. This might seem counterintuitive to some; after all, knowledge of multiple languages is generally viewed favourably on the job market, right?
Unfortunately, this is true for only a handful of majority languages, and it is quite the opposite for speakers of non-standard varieties and indigenous minority languages. Many such speakers of non-standard varieties have no access to schooling in the language they speak at home and in many cases, bilingual education is not supported—sometimes it is even actively discouraged. This prevents students from maintaining their first language, which is often an indigenous minority language.There are multiple possible reasons why countries don’t provide bilingual education, including a difficulty finding teachers and teaching materials in both languages. However, one reason that should not be overlooked is a misguided belief that bilingual education is disadvantageous, and the evidence suggests this is not the case; multilingual speakers’ school performance is at the same level as monolingual majority-language speakers. It is therefore not surprising that the study found no major influence of contact with other languages and multilingualism on language endangerment. These findings on the role of education provide helpful information for policymakers tasked with protecting and preserving indigenous and minority languages.
Language is more than a tool for communication
Language loss has a great societal impact on the communities that are affected by it. Language is more than just a tool for communication. For many speakers, their language is part of their identity and losing it can undercut their sense of belonging. In addition, language holds a great deal of information as it encodes the community’s cultural and intellectual heritage: the community’s history told in stories and songs, their traditions and beliefs, as well as intricate shared knowledge about the world that has been gathered over generations through interaction with the community’s surroundings. For example, “songlines” are travel routes encoded in song used in Aboriginal culture to navigate Australia across hundreds (and sometimes even thousands) of kilometers using the location of landmarks and natural phenomena. In other words, language is a reflection of how speakers interpret the world, which offers a close look into the way we think. Studying the diversity of linguistic features found in the world’s languages helps us to find and understand the possibilities and limits of language and the mind. Given this, linguistics (the scientific study of language) also suffers from a decrease in linguistic diversity, meaning linguists also have an important role to play this decade.
The major contribution of linguistics in this respect is the documentation and analysis of languages across the world. Thirty years ago, a special issue in Language, a journal of the Linguistic Society of America, featured a call to do more about this. Importantly, there has been good progress in the decades since, but what matters is that more than 2,500 languages remain undescribed—and more than half of these are, to some degree, endangered. We still need to do more language documentation work, which is why it is surprising and worrying that some graduate linguistics programmes do not seem to accept descriptive grammars of un(der)documented languages as a doctoral topic anymore. Each language has the potential to provide us with previously unfound features, or to confirm existing theories, both of which increase our understanding of language.
Moreover, the era of big data in linguistics has provided us with new ways of comparing languages through the compilation of what linguists call corpora (collections of everyday spoken or written language), which can be used to study language patterns and how these vary across individual speakers and languages. Unfortunately, these are available in only a limited number of languages right now. The SCOPIC Project is a wonderful exception. Researchers can use the project materials to ask speakers of different languages from all over the world to organise and describe a series of pictures to form a story. Speakers are free to do it in their own way, which creates very rich and original language data that can be used to discover further similarities and differences in which languages and individuals express themselves.
The field of linguistics also needs to realise that a different approach is needed in this day and age. Linguists should move away from recording languages for their own scientific benefit alone.
As described above, language is part of the culture, knowledge and identity of a community, so a move towards community-based language research (where local documenters and scholars are trained in documentation methods) can help ensure these factors are also taken into account when documenting a language. This gives the community the ability to do the linguistic work in ways that are culturally appropriate, working on topics that are relevant and important for them. The materials can then be used to assist the revitalisation of endangered or extinct languages, thus serving the community’s needs. One excellent example is the revival of the Wôpanâak language, for which no fluent native speakers were thought to be alive in the 1920s, but which now again has children speaking it as their native language.
There is a big challenge ahead when it comes to preserving the world’s linguistic diversity, but as with many things it starts with what the UN is hoping to achieve this decade: awareness and collaboration.
- Evans, N. (2009). Dying words: Endangered languages and what they have to tell us.
- Evans, N., & Levinson, S. C. (2009). The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32(5), 429-448.
- Seifart, F., Evans, N., Hammarström, H., & Levinson, S. C. (2018). Language documentation twenty-five years on. Language, 94(4), e324-e345.
- Bromham, L., Dinnage, R., Skirgård, H., Ritchie, A., Cardillo, M., Meakins, F., … & Hua, X. (2021). Global predictors of language endangerment and the future of linguistic diversity. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 1-11.
- Barth, D., Evans, N., Arka, I. W., Bergqvist, H., Forker, D., Gipper, S., … & Tykhostup, O. (2021). Language vs individuals in cross-linguistic corpus typology. Language Documentation & Conservation Special Publication, 179-.232
Writer: John Huisman
Editors: Sara Mazzini
Dutch translation: Ava Creemers
German translation: Ronny Bujok
Final editing: Eva Poort, Sophie Slaats