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Why do languages die?

By Memrise Blog

You may have heard of endangered languages. They are cute, fluffy and eat bamboo. Every year people donate millions to charities that try to keep them alive, but nonetheless their numbers are still decreasing at an alarming rate.

There are a number of different factors that put these adorable creatures at risk of extinction. Natural disasters can be a huge problem for remote communities. Tidal waves, earthquakes and volcanoes have wiped out hundreds of thousands of people, and taken their languages with them. Unfavourable climactic conditions such as desertification or flooding, which are worsened by climate change, have made their traditional homelands no longer inhabitable. And finally contact with other humans has also proved to be a swift killer. Diseases such as smallpox, influenza and the plague that were brought to North America by European colonisers are estimated to have killed off roughly 90% of the continent’s original population, who at one point spoke hundreds of different languages. The situation in South America is even more dire, with the more than 1,500 indigenous languages that were spoken at the point of first contact with European settlers now having been reduced to a mere 350.

However there are even more directly human factors at play here. As well as environmental damage brought about by climate change, economic exploitation of natural resources has resulted in mass deforestation, the destruction of lakes, and other entire ecosystems which communities have depended on for their livelihoods. This has resulted in mass, unplanned and unpredictable economic migration to large, urban environments, where these communities become diluted, assimilated, and quickly lose touch with their cultural and linguistic heritage, which becomes archaic and irrelevant in the eyes of future generations, who have only known their modern and urban lives.

Human conflict has also destroyed many languages. Fighting in the Second World War spelled the end for many minor languages spoken on islands in the Pacific Ocean that found themselves caught up in the conflict. And many countries have pursued repressive and hegemonic linguistic policies, which have actively sought to wipe minority languages out. In the present day, many East African countries are promoting Swahili as a unifying common language in order to foster feelings of nationalism and government loyalty amongst the population. In the process, though, an inordinate number of tribal languages are being lost. Historically, the oppression of these minority languages has often been the first step along the path to oppressing entire minorities as well. In the 1950s the USSR pursued a policy of Russification of its republics, in which non-Russian speaking children were removed from their families and sent to only Russian-speaking boarding schools for ten months. During this time many people lost the ability to speak their mother tongues fluently, and as a result no longer felt that they identified with it as much. The effects of this policy are still evident today in the former Soviet Union, with many people in Kazakhstan unable to speak Kazakh natively and having been brought up and educated in exclusively Russian-speaking environments.

Many people have a vested interest in the destruction of a minority language. From an economic perspective, it is much cheaper and easier to be able to market to millions of people in one single language. This could partly account for the disproportionate success of American and British brands around the world, whose names and slogans are immediately recognisable and catchier as a result of high worldwide proficiency in English. From a political perspective, a common language is often used as a convenient way to define a nation and foster a sense of national unity. Armed forces can only fight side by side if they share a common language, and this argument even extends to claims of disharmony between Castilian and Catalan speaking players in the Spanish national football team.

Languages are more than just a means to communicate. Languages tell the stories of different communities, and they reflect the social and physical environment in which they are spoken. They are a true representation of culture, a signature of the diversity that contributes to and shapes the human experience. Every time a language dies, it is a tragedy. But what can we do about it?

We can’t force someone to speak another language, but if we look at the various reasons why someone might stop speaking their ancestral tongue, then immediately there are things that can be done. Funding cultural organisations, such as film companies, theatre groups and publishing houses, to produce high quality works in an endangered language immediately boosts its popularity by creating an active and engaged audience for it. An enormous amount of fieldwork is also being done to document these endangered languages, so that materials can be created for those who want to learn them in the future. You can choose to learn them too, or just learn about them so that at the very least they aren’t forgotten.

There are, after all, stories of huge linguistic comebacks. In the UK, Welsh has transformed from being nearly forgotten just a century ago to having nearly 750,000 speakers today. UNESCO has compiled a database of endangered languages around the world (see here). If you live near an endangered language, why don’t you make that your next language to learn?

In 2012 Alex Rawlings was named Britain’s most multilingual student after being tested for fluency in 11 different languages. He now lives in Budapest where he is learning Hungarian, and works as a teacher of English, German, Russian and Greek. He is heavily involved in the online language learning community, and helps organise annual International Polyglot Conferences worldwide. He blogs at www.rawlangs.com, and tweets at @RawLangs_Blog.