It's a Small World, and It's Wiping Out Languages


"Hello!" in endangered languages, which are from the top, left to right: Cherokee, Comanche, Judeo-Moroccan Arabic, Niuean, Aleut, Tse'khene, Khalaj and Ainu HowStuffWorks
"Hello!" in endangered languages, which are from the top, left to right: Cherokee, Comanche, Judeo-Moroccan Arabic, Niuean, Aleut, Tse'khene, Khalaj and Ainu HowStuffWorks

In an impossibly interconnected world, where pretty much anybody can talk to anybody on any spot on the globe at any time, it's ironic that our languages are more fragile than ever.

We talk, still. We talk plenty. The problem is, in a shrinking world where different cultures jockey to coexist, homogeneity wins out. Common denominators rule. Languages suffer.

And so, languages disappear.

Around 7,000 languages are spoken around the world according to researchers at the University of Hawaii and elsewhere. That includes the biggies, like Mandarin and English, each spoken by more than a billion people. It also includes Tse'khene, a language used in upper northeast British Columbia, Canada, with just 30 native speakers, according to the First Peoples' Cultural Council.

Dozens of those 7,000 languages are spoken by fewer people than that. The Endangered Languages Project, backed by Google, estimates that as much as 44 percent of today's languages are threatened with extinction. Indeed, many are considered extinct.

"When we look through the rate at which languages change," says Gary Holton, a linguist at the University of Hawaii, "we feel fairly confident that more languages have disappeared than exist today."

That loss stands to accelerate, too, if nothing is done. Some experts estimate that, in the next 100 years, 90 percent of languages will face extinction. In the best case, it may be 50 percent.

The reasons languages evaporate are varied, but near the top of the list is globalization. It's happened for centuries, ever since trade began and different societies and cultures — with their different languages — collided. The bigger culture's language gets adopted. In time, young people learn that language instead of their native tongue.

Eventually, a language is lost.

The process is sometimes forced, too. Throughout history, societies have physically imposed their culture on others. In British Columbia, for example, governments forced native peoples to go to government schools and learn English or French. It was forbidden to speak another language. As a result, only 34 First Nations languages in British Columbia still exist. Thirteen are spoken by fewer than 50 people each.

Fortunately, groups across the globe are busy trying to catalog, preserve and even revitalize these dying languages.

In many cases, it's a race against time.

A Fight to Save the Spoken Word

"I believe there is still reason for optimism," says Aliana Parker, the language programs manager for British Columbia's First Peoples' Cultural Council (FPCC). "Communities continue to invest the few dollars that are available in really working on developing language programs, recording and documenting fluent speakers before they pass away, and building up and creating language resources and building up better language programs to be able to teach the language effectively in schools and outside of school, too, to adults and others."

In small First Nations communities across British Columbia, language programs are critical to saving dozens of languages. Parker preaches the importance of recording elders speaking the language of their youth — on audio and video often available online — and pushes local communities to teach the languages in school, considering kids rarely hear their native language at home. Apps are being developed. Seminars are being held. Parker had to turn away young people from a seminar at an aboriginal youth conference in March.

Still, it's a difficult fight. Funding is always a problem. And in its last report, the FPCC notes that, of the First Nations communities polled, only 9 percent were enrolled in language programs. The average time in school spent on languages was just over five hours a week.

"The work keeps soldiering on. There's never going to be a quick fix for this. But I believe optimism is still the best approach for the future," Parker says. "Especially [the] hope that with wider recognition of the value of languages ... the funding dollars will increase."

Parker promotes — though it's often unavailable or impractical to many — total immersion, where all classes are taught in the native language and speaking it at home becomes commonplace.

Holton has seen it work in Hawaii.

"If you look at Hawaii over the last 20 years, people started here with pre-K, getting kids in an environment where they can just be around speakers. They weren't teaching the kids language. There were just getting kids — 1, 2, 3, 4 years old — in a place where all they heard was Hawaiian," Holton says. "At the same time, every family that enrolled their kids in these schools — and this is still true today — had to enroll in Hawaiian classes. So these 20-something parents, new parents, were then in the evening taking Hawaiian classes.

"In a way, that's the key thing that is difficult in revitalization," Holton says. "It's not just about teaching phrases or learning vocabulary. It's putting that whole ecosystem back together."

You can hear the Hawaiian star of Disney's hit movie "Moana" pronounce a few staples of the Hawaiian language in the video below:

Why Language Is Important

Holton has seen progress in Hawaii, and Parker can point to promising statistics in B.C., but the omnipresent pressures of larger society continue to make the work difficult. That's evident in the most basic of ways.

Like people asking why, in an ever-shrinking world, it's important to keep a dying language alive in the first place.

"I look forward to the day when people don't ask me that question," Parker says. "Language is identity. Language is culture. The language ties these communities to these lands. Language is really a key demonstrator of a very long-term, intimate relationship with the land. That's all encoded within language. That gives you your history, your culture, who you are, how you relate to the world around you."

The relationship that people have with their homeland, expressed through language, is not only key to the people directly affected, of course. It's important to people everywhere.

In a more meta sense, it's important to humans. To the species.

"To me, [it's] really asking ... why we should care about human diversity. If there is anything uniquely human, it's language," Holton says. "So if we don't care about linguistic diversity, it's a slippery slope to start to not care about human diversity. And then we lose something as a people."



More to Explore