Where have all the languages gone?

The tower of Babel

On Earth Day, we take time to think about how human activity is affecting the environment and how we can work together to slow and reverse these trends. As part of this, you’ll probably hear about the dramatic loss of biodiversity in the world: WWF (The World Wide Fund for Nature) estimates that, even if we count only those species we’ve scientifically documented (which could be far less than the true number of existing species), we’re losing between 200 and 2,000 species per year, forever! It’s mind-boggling. Unfortunately, this is not the only way in which the world is becoming less diverse at an alarmingly fast rate. We’re also losing diversity in the languages we speak.  Here are some facts that we hope will convince you, the language lovers of the world, that language preservation is an important cause to get behind.

–         More and more, people are speaking a small group of languages.  Most linguists agree that there are approximately 6,000 languages spoken by the 7 billion people currently living on the planet.  3 billion of those 7 billion people speak one of just 20 languages.

–         In recent decades, there have been big losses in language diversity. According to the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat) of the Univeristy of Hawaii, Manao and the University of Eastern Michigan, nearly 30 language families have disappeared since 1960. To give you an idea of how much linguistic diversity can be represented in just one language family, think of this: the largest language family in existence today – Indo-European – includes languages as diverse as Farsi, Russian, Irish Gaelic, and Dutch.  If you’ve tried to learn some of these languages, you’ll know that they are quite different from one another!

–         More big losses are predicted to happen soon.  Linguist John McWhorter has said that as early as 2115, the number of languages spoken in the world could drop from 6,000 to 600.

–         This may be happening in your backyard. According to the LSA (Linguistic Society of America), out of hundreds of languages that were once spoken in North America, only 194 remain and of those 194, 49 are spoken only by a few people, mostly over the age of 70, and 5 may already be extinct.

Okay, okay, you say, I get it! But why does this matter? What can I do? These are good questions.

Here’s what Endangered Language Project of the CUNY Graduate Center has to say:

As languages die, thousands of years of accumulated human knowledge, experience, creativity and evolution goes with them. Ken Hale, an MIT professor and language activist once said that losing any one language “is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre.”

Anyone who has spent time far away from home – be it in another part of the country or in another country altogether- knows how important language is to our identities and collective way of thinking. Think of all of the nuances and rich cultural information contained in just a handful of the most popular idioms in your language, for example.  There are also more fundamental aspects of language which may affect how we see the world (e.g. whether the language you speak expresses gender, has different pronouns depending on the formality of a situation, etc…) When a language goes extinct without being properly documented, all of that information for the speakers of that language is lost.

Are you convinced? If you’re ready to get involved and learn more, below are some useful sites:

Endangered Language Alliance (at the CUNY Graduate Center): http://elalliance.org/

UNESCO’s Atlas of Endangered Languages Project http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/faq-on-endangered-languages/

National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/enduring-voices/

You can also learn more on our Youtube page about the Hebrew language and how it was revived after centuries of being “dead.” You might even consider starting the courses we offer in Hebrew or in Irish Gaelic, which is still listed as being at risk of extinction by the UNESCO Endangered Languages Atlas.

image: Wikimedia Commons