Are we losing languages?

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It sounds implausible but, according to UNESCO, around ten languages really do die out each year. And it is estimated that half of the living languages in the world are under threat of extinction.

While the WWF and other similar organisations strive to save breeds of animals from extinction, it’s worth noting that languages are one of the more endangered quantities on the planet. The University of East Anglia calculated that in the past 500 years, 4.5 percent of languages have died out, compared with 1.3 percent of birds and 1.9 percent of mammals.

But it’s not just believed to be a Darwinian principle that is killing language. National Geographic explorer, Wade Davis believes it’s also being caused by ethnocide, the destruction of peoples’ way of life. There are currently 6,909 languages that have been officially recognised by the Ethnologue — the reference volume that catalogues all the known living languages in the world. But the ten major languages (each spoken by over 109 million people) are the native tongues of almost half of the world’s population. It’s no surprise that the Ethnologue is written in English: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and English are the most widely spoken languages.

As more and more people have increased contact with the rest of the world, speaking a common language has been the best way to embrace the opportunities offered by globalisation and an increasingly homogenised society. This is one of the reasons why almost every Dutch person you meet speaks perfect English, even though there are 21 million speakers worldwide in twelve countries – it’s still hugely advantageous to speak English.

For example, it’s a requirement if you want to be an international pilot, and 80 to 90 percent of papers in scientific journals are written in English, so certain careers require fluency in the language. And, along with globalisation, the world is also coming together physically. In 1800, just three percent of the world’s population lived in cities, but now about half of the world’s population reside in urban areas.

As people leave their villages, the lesser-spoken languages are left behind with a dwindling number of speakers. In the melting pots of cities, the dominant languages increasingly become the de facto means of communication, especially for the second generation who are born there and don’t learn their parents’ original dialect.

The Foundation of Endangered Languages states that 28 percent of languages are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people each, and 83 percent of languages are spoken only in single countries, and are thus particularly exposed to eradication by a number of means. For example, in Indonesia all but fifty speakers of the Paulohi language were killed when an earthquake and tidal wave struck.

Throughout humanity, thousands of languages have been created and died out and very few have survived more than 2,000 years – Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Basque being a small number that have endured. But as we fast become the Global Village, it seems that languages spoken in traditional villages are dying out in favour of more practical terms of communication. Over 400 languages are in the final stages of extinction, including Ayapaneco, which has been spoken in what is now Mexico for centuries. There remain just two people left who can speak it fluently and, according to a report in The Guardian, they have fallen out with each other. Their centuries-old language will die with them, if it hasn’t already been killed off by a personal feud.

While it would be handy, for practical purposes, if we all spoke the same language, there is something about the very culture of people in the words they speak. The Maori people of New Zealand are increasing their speaking numbers in one of the rare successes after years of having the language banned by the European settlers. One of their teachers said: “If you grow up not speaking your language, you won’t know who you are.”

A nice idea but not one that will reverse the overall global trend. Following a study by language researcher, David Graddol, it is believed that 90 percent of the languages currently spoken in the world will have become extinct by 2050

For Esquire Magazine, January 2012

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