One of the most striking features of our world is its astonishing diversity. This diversity is reflected not only in the rich variety of plant and animal species and ecosystems in nature, but also in the variety of cultures and languages in human societies. Although our efforts to distance ourselves from nature, and to contain and control it through technological innovations may temporarily obscure the coevolution and interdependency of life, human history is written in the same book as natural history. Every animal and plant descends from a unicellular ancestor that metamorphosed into a more complex organism billions years ago. The tendency of evolution to this point has played out toward more life forms and greater cultural diversity. We are crossing a threshold of irreversible loss of species and languages into a fundamentally changed and less diverse world. What is being destroyed is the fundamental process that generated the very conditions of life that we are at home in. The continuation of large-scale speciation and language genesis is threatened by the elimination of the conditions that historically made them possible.
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Language is a rather complex system and it faces certain changes and transformations throughout its development. Some languages may disappear as a result of such changes due to the fact that they become less used or due to some other factors. According to the most recent reports and surveys, a significant threat was reported to linguistic resources in the whole world. It was stated that nearly 6,000 languages are going to disappear soon since they are spoken only by adults. Further generations are absolutely unaware of these languages and they are not taught.
The issue of language extinction is extremely serious nowadays as according to the recent prognoses up to 90% of all existing languages in the world are highly likely to disappear soon or they may become seriously embattled in the nearest future. Thus, there will predictably remain approximately 600 languages that happen to be the most secure ones now. Such data were provided according to the recent surveys that were conducted across the globe. The largest area of threat was found in America, Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia.
According to the experts, the native language is thought to be vanishing if more than 30% of children of a particular community stop learning it. Only in Europe, one can find up to 50 languages under the threat of extinction. Some of them, such as Lapland, which is spoken in Scandinavia and Northern Russia, are dying. It is impossible to state for sure whether language extinction is really a threat and a tragedy. That is why, the following aspects should be analyzed: evidence for language extinction in the world today, the reasons for this phenomenon, the future prognoses, and the likelihood of this process is stopped.
In ancient times, when there were almost no communication links between different nationalities, each one had its own language of communication. However, with the growing unification of people within one state, there appeared a need to use its territory as a single means of communication and have certain official languages that would be spoken by the majority of the population; consequently, many languages of small ethnic groups began to disappear.
The Main Reasons of Extinction and Evidence
The rate of languages extinction nowadays can be called absolutely unprecedented in human history. Nowadays the linguistic Red Book contains more than 40% of the world’s languages. As for the flora and fauna, the indicators are 8% and 18%, and this is not so much in comparison with the language! The main reason for the death of languages is the uneven distribution of the number of carriers. Thus, 80% of the world knows only 80 languages. At the same time, 3.5 thousand languages are accounted for 0.2% of the Earth. Allegedly, the main reason for the process of language extinction is globalization and migration. People are leaving the villages to the cities and lose their native languages.
About one-half of the currently existing languages will have disappeared by the middle of the XXI century. Many languages are disappearing due to the fact that their speakers come in contact with more powerful language environment. Therefore, the languages of small ethnic groups and languages of the peoples without statehood are facing the major risk of extinction now.
Every week one language dies in the world. In most cases together with the language the history of the speaker stops developing, as well as its particular culture. As predicted by linguists, in 25 years out of the number of existing languages, only one-tenth will remain. The international means of communication will be represented by the Chinese language and Hindi.
According to scientists, today the world hosts 6809 languages, half of which falls on 8 countries: Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, Cameroon, India, China, USA and Russia. The most multilingual country is India, whose population speaks 845 languages and dialects. Behind it goes Papua – New Guinea (there about 600 languages and dialects are found because of the abundance of isolated valleys).
The most common languages in the world are Chinese, English, and Spanish. In the first ten one can find such listed languages as Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese and German (see also global linguistic statistics). Half of these languages are located in Europe, although Europe is home to only 4% of all world languages. Moreover, English is deemed a “natural” home for 341 million people. It is also the language ofthe international business and information technology, so is spoken by 350 million people more.
The expansion and retraction of languages is a social phenomenon, which reflects a position of power. The disappearance of a language always has non-linguistic causes which are the result of a balance of’ forces. Interestingly, as a result of the constant media bombardment, a layman in the street is well aware of the threat that hangs over the environment, over the animal and plant species of the planet. However, most people have never heard about the threat to a large portion of the languages presently spoken on earth. In fact, it has been estimated that 90% of all languages will disappear orwill be near extinction in the next century.
Today in India there are 442 languages that have only between one and five speakers left. These data can be found in the report published by the International Congress of Linguists held at Laval University. What makes the situation even more urgent is that most languages have not even been the object of a detailed description on the part of the linguistic community.
There are, however, a few opposing opinions that are clearly in the minority. For instance, according to Dalby the present linguistic diversity is greater than linguists imagine as there may well be 10,000 languages instead of 6,000, so the rate of disappearance is not as high as estimated. Still, others believe that widely spoken like English and French will become victims of a Babelisation process.
It is important to emphasize at the outset that language obsolescence has nothing to do with the linguistic structure of a speech variety. Every variety, whether “healthy” or obsolescent, undergoes linguistic change involving lexical modifications and grammatical innovations, so that, from a purely linguistic point of view, the phenomena of language obsolescence and language change are linked by common mechanisms.
Languages are dying out in many ways: the indigenous inhabitants of Tasmania were severely persecuted and expelled from their homes, as well as some Indian tribes in the United States who have experienced a similar fate during the expansion of the West. In this context, local people died because of certain diseases and defects brought by white men. In addition, some Indian tribes of North America were scourged by alcoholism, and in the villages of the Amazon, there appeared more and more distributed cocaine dependence together with the collapse or destruction of their tribal languages.
However, the main cause of extinction of languages is less dramatic and perhaps more insidious. Switching to another language is when an individual is adapting the native language to language of the majority which is considered prestigious, or the language of the respectable society. A clear confirmation of this process, which takes place during the three generations, can be found in immigrants living in the United States. The first generation of Spanish-speaking immigrants is monolingual, and only a few know the main language. The second generation is bilingual: children learn their native language from their parents along with the principal language spoken in the street. The third generation uses the primary language at home and in the street. Perhaps, in some cases, the loss of native language is inevitable, but the languages deserve a dignified death. In some Asian American families, children cannot communicate with their grandparents, because they speak only English, and their grandparents speak Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese.
In the process of European unification, there appeared new information about the local languages and cultures which became the basis for campaigning for the protection of minority languages and an important tool in revival of the dead languages used alongside with the national language.
Language obsolescence is most likely to occur in a community that is in a stage of transitional bilingualism often due to a period of socio-political change. This could be when two languages are in competition, after a period of invasion or colonization, although whether it is the language of the conquerors or of the conquered people that prevails is largely determined by socio-political, rather than linguistic factors. For example, although English has emerged as dominant over the indigenous languages of Australia, Anglo-Normans failed to supplant it in England in the period following the Norman Conquest of 1066.
Industrialization, with its common corollary of urbanization, is also frequently responsible for major social upheavals. People leave their homes in search of employment. When this entails an influx or exodus of people who do not speak the language-variety of their adoptive community, there are immediate linguistic repercussions, the nature of which again depends totally on the socio-political situations of the languages in question.
For example, in the case of Nubian male speakers who traveled to Cairo and Alexandria in search of work, they were obliged to learn Arabic which they brought back to their homelands.
In Wales, on the other hand, the English-speaking immigrants who came to work in the coal mines had the effect of Anglicizing the community, since they brought their language with them. Thus, the direction of population migration is not a way of predicting language obsolescence either.
The contexts in which Indigenous languages are spoken are as diverse as humankind itself, spanning language situations such as that of Quechua, spoken by 8 to 12 million people in six South American countries to that of Aotearoa/New Zealand, where a single Indigenous language, Maori, shares co-official status with English and New Zealand Sign Language; to the extraordinary linguistic diversity of Papua New Guinea, where 760 distinct languages, most spoken by fewer than one thousand people, coexist in an area the size of the American state of California; to the state of California itself, where fifty Native American languages are still spoken, none as a first language by children.
With some exceptions—Guaraní in Paraguay, for example—the viability of Indigenous languages is severely threatened by legacies of language repression and the myriad contemporary forces that privilege languages of wider communication and marginalize “local” languages. Thus, for Indigenous peoples, language revitalization, maintenance, and reversal of language shift are key language planning and policy (LPP) goals.
The subaltern status of Indigenous languages positions Indigenous LPP as a de facto expression of identity, sovereignty, and human rights. There is an abundance of promising educational, social, and political activity under way by and for Indigenous peoples vis-à-vis those rights. A recent Web search on Indigenous LPP, for example, reveals more than a million sources!
Central and South America are the main regions where a great number of languages is under a huge risk of extinction. The reason for this situation is first and foremost an extraordinary diversity of indigenous peoples living there. In tropical rain forests of the Amazon, there are countless small independent communities, each speaking its own language. The main danger for nearly all the indigenous languages of Central and South America is the official language of their state. Whether it is Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia or Argentina: Spanish penetrates into the last unexplored corners. In Brazil, the Portuguese language changes along with economic and social changes that take place in the state. To keep pace with this development, indigenous people, as a rule, have no choice but to accept the new language. The use of their own language is confined to the family. Gradually, as children go to public schools and grow up with a new national language, it disappears altogether. In this context, it is very important for indigenous people to speak their own language. They can also make sure that their language does not die out by transferring it to future generations. Bilingualism is the solution to the problem of preservation of traditional culture in people’s native language and coexistence with the outside world, where they speak the national language.
The reason for the disappearance of national languages lies in globalization and migration, which lead, including the disappearance of national characteristics and traditions, characteristic differences in lifestyle. It is known that people who do not live in a closed and isolated group have to communicate with each other with the help of a common language. This language is also used for publishing magazines and books, in television programs, and in business communication. Besides, children, in this case, are taught at least two languages – the official, and the one that is used and spoken at home in order to communicate with parents and other members of the family. After a generation or two there is no practical need for a language spoken by the ancestors, and it gradually disappears.
There are also economic reasons for this issue as it is much easier to control and perform communication between people with the help of a common language. The use of different languages complicates international communication since a great need arises in numerous staff of translators. The main problem is that institutions do not train specialists in all the languages that are spoken in the world nowadays.
Economic reasons forced people to leave their villages and go to cities where they withdrew from their native language, using generally accepted language. Thus, minority languages are displaced and absorbed by the giants such as English, Chinese, and Russian. Scientists have named five “hot spots” where languages are threatened with extinction: the north of Australia, Central America, south-west part of the United States, British Columbia and Eastern Siberia. According to the published list, in Northern Australia today there are 153 languages in Central America – 113 (only in Oklahoma and Texas – 40), and 23 languages account for Eastern Siberia, Japan and China. The problem of endangered languages appeared in the 19th century, however, serious attention to the subject has been paid for the last decades of the twentieth century.
According to specialists, languages have always disappeared. They say it is a permanent phenomenon. It is interesting that today under modern circumstances no new languages appear. Instead, but the old ones disappear with catastrophic speed. Most often it is because the carriers of the rare languages do not appreciate their languages and do not use them at home. Such language is seen as an obstacle for career, public life, and personal growth. Everyone is trying to teach prestigious languages that facilitate upward mobility.
Sometimes the reason for the disappearance of a language is not only assimilation but also the physical disappearance of the small nationalities that were not able to adapt to modern conditions of life. For instance, the census shows that the number of nationalities that consider themselves Russian every time is shortened by a few dozen. Linguists say that if the current rate of disappearance of national languages persists, in this century their number will highly likely decrease by 90%.
Moreover, in recent years there has been a gradual change in attitudes toward bilingualism and the development of the trend towards recognition or promotion of bilingual education. The most notable change in attitude towards languages occurred in Native American communities. If earlier people were ashamed of their background and native languages, now they are very proud of them. Young people are actively interested in reviving the language as there are many interesting language programs.
Such organizations as the Institute of Indigenous Languages, contribute to the efforts of communities and individuals on the description and the revival of languages, providing grants and technical support through the government, NGOs, and well-known international organizations.
The Role of Language Extinction
The tragedy of language extinction is also connected with the fact that this problem is especially peculiar for individuals from not privileged communities. The loss of a language is similar to the loss of cultural resources that are required in order for it to survive. Principles of social justice suggest it be desirable that governments should accord more recognition to the preferred language choice of their constituent citizens. Principles of state economy suggest that this desire be increasingly conditional on the balance of forces ranged against the advocates of linguistic uniformity.
In multicultural and multilingual societies worldwide, governments have faced the problem of finding the proper balance between the interests of the state and the necessities and rights of individuals who want to be aware of their native languages and cultures, and have an opportunity to be educated in their native, regional and/or national language.
The exact number of languages that are threatened with extinction, of course, is not important. What is significant is the scope of the problem, and that all is too clear already. Just as the biodiversity of our world is at risk, so too is its linguistic diversity. The analogy between biodiversity and linguistic diversity, although seemingly powerful as per the literature sources, is less than perfect. Most people understand, at least to some extent why the loss of biodiversity is undesirable. Far fewer individuals and groups are concerned about the loss of linguistic diversity, and some, no doubt, see such development as a positive thing. All in all, language extinction poses a terrible threat not only to our understanding of human language and cognition but also to our knowledge of the natural world.
Surely, the challenge of language endangerment and language death is hardly the one that can be solved by a foreign language educator. However, this does not remove all responsibility from our shoulders. Teaching about human language, language diversity, and the risks of language endangerment is important within the critical foreign language curriculum, whether it contains a less commonly taught language or those that taught more commonly.
The question is whether or not to fight for the lives of these languages? After all, there is a point of view that if a language disappears, it means that it is not claimed by people, and therefore it should not be saved. But professional linguists disagree. Every language is a unique way of expressing human thoughts. With the disappearance of language, a certain way of expressing thoughts disappears too. So our cultural heritage is impoverished. From the standpoint of linguistics, culture, and ethnology, language extinction is an absolute disaster.
Specialists who make the rescue efforts of the languages cannot often cope with this problem since their efforts are not accompanied by all sides, including the speakers’ participation.
Each language is precious because through language individuals form as a group. Language creates a special environment in which it is installed and maintained by strengthening the relationship of a man with the outside world. Extinction of a language results in a loss of a certain view of the world, a unique identity, and access to the storeroom of knowledge. We lose diversity and human rights.
When the children no longer learn their native language, it comes into a stage of dying out, but this process is reversible. As the world practice shows, in particular the examples of the Hebrew language and the Welsh language revivals, it is possible to take necessary measures and revive the national languages within time. Moreover, many young people now show a strong desire to know their historical roots and the language that their ancestors spoke.