Fading into Oblivion
Language experts say half of the world’s nearly 7,000 languages are expected to be extinct by the end of this century. Asia is where nearly half of these endangered languages are spoken. The continent will lose more than means of communication when these
Language makes communication possible but its significance is not merely limited to its function as a communication tool. A manifestation of a cultural identity, a language creates cultural solidarity amongst its speakers and forms part of a person’s identity. Language, owing to its use to encode information, contains a wealth of knowledge – especially insights into the unique locales that these languages originate from. For these reasons, langauge is itself a form of heritage.
The dominance and appeal of languages such as the English language, a desire to assimilate into larger communities, socioeconomic and demographic changes, natural disasters, political repression, marginalisation and urbanisation are some of the reasons why languages are pushed into endangerment.
In the last century, about 400 languages have become extinct. To put this figure into perspective, we have lost one language every three months. With this unprecedented rate of disappearance, language experts project that half of the nearly 7,000 languages that exist today will perish – along with the unique knowledge they contain – by the end of this century. Especially troubling is the loss of languages without writing systems and historical records. Almost half of the endangered languages listed in Google’s Endangered Languages Project come from Asia. What can we do to prevent this loss of language diversity in Asia? ASIAN Geographic takes a closer look at five of these highly endangered languages in Southeast Asia. ag
Ugong Country it’s spoken in: Thailand Region: Uthai Thani and Suphanburi provinces
Also known as Gong, Lawa and Ugawng, Ugong is spoken in isolated communities in Uthai Thani and Suphanburi provinces in western Thailand. The language was already in severe decline when Westerners discovered it in the 1920s. Among factors responsible for the decline in the use of the language are occupation by Thais, lack of schools, children not being taught the language even at home and marriage with members of other communities. The displacement of villagers who speak the language due to dam construction has contributed to its decline. As a result, the Ugong community has become a stigmatised minority in Thailand and this further endangers the language’s survival. The last children speakers were recorded in the 1970s and now, most Ugong children speak Thai as their first language.
S’aoch Country it’s spoken in: Cambodia Region: Veal Renh
There are over 20 languages that are spoken in Cambodia. The United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, has warned that 19 of these are at risk of extinction, and these are mostly minority languages.
S’aoch is one of the minority tribes in Cambodia and only 10 speakers of the language remain, making it the most endangered language in the country. The S’aoch community was severely affected during the Khmer Rouge rule and has been subjected to extreme poverty. With the association with poverty, even people from the community itself have rejected the language and have chosen to speak Khmer, the dominant language in Cambodia, instead. The young are also taught Khmer in schools and do not take an interest in learning S’aoch.
A scholar of the language, Jean-Michel Filippi, has taken it upon himself to record the language before it perishes, and his efforts have come in the form of a 6,000word dictionary as well as a book on the S’aoch people.
Image Shutterstock ABOVE A woman working in a paddy field, in Shan State, Myanmar
BELOW An elderly woman weaving silk on a traditional manual loom in Uthai Thani, Thailand