Why it’s important to save endangered languagesCurrent affairsFeature of the weekPolitics & Social issues
With over 7,000 languages spoken around the world, it may come as a shock to learn that roughly 40% of those are endangered. While half of the world’s population speaks at least one of the world’s 20 most common languages, there are around 2,800 languages each spoken by less than 10,000 people. Recent studies have concluded that learning a second language is beneficial to general comprehension and attention span. However, by learning an endangered language, people could also help spread and promote cultures which are at risk of dying out entirely.
Language and culture
In a 2003 Ted Talk, National Geographic’s Wade Davis discusses the Barasana tribe in the Amazon; their culture has a rule known as “linguistic exogamy,” which insists that its people have to marry someone who speaks another language from their own. “In these long houses,” he says, “where there are six or seven languages spoken because of intermarriage, you never hear anyone practicing a language. They simply listen and then begin to speak.”
Linguists have noted that the drive to preserve dying languages should be no different from the way people feel about endangered wildlife. “We spend huge amounts of money protecting species and biodiversity,” one anthropologist told the BBC. “So why should it be that the one thing that makes us singularly human shouldn’t be similarly nourished and protected?”
How technology is helping languages survive
Rather than be responsible for widening the spread of English as the standard online language, the internet has begun allowing speakers of endangered languages to develop an online resource for their native tongue. Young generations are making full use of the means they have available to raise awareness of endangered languages, be it through their creative endeavours or designing apps and taking to social media in order to literally spread the word.
In 2012, a Pennsylvanian linguist started a number of projects across the world to create online talking dictionaries for languages spoken by as little as one individual in a remote part of Oregon. As The Economist points out: “In each place there is an enthusiastic local who is wise enough to care about saving his heritage and young enough to see that this requires embracing modernity.”
Drives like this not only introduce vanishing languages to future generations of native speakers, but also serve to raise awareness of these cultures to outsiders. It may not lead to an upsurge in the number of, say, speakers of Matukar Panau worldwide. However, the fact a language known by so few people (around 430 speakers at last count) is even entering global conversation is a significant development in itself.
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