Hello! Hola! Ni hao! You may know that there are thousands of languages in the world. However, do you know that more than half of the languages spoken today are endangered? In fact, one language dies every two weeks! In this issue, we take some time to look at endangered languages.
What are endangered languages?
An endangered language is one that faces a real threat of becoming extinct in the near future.
This problem is so urgent, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has come up with a chart that classifies how severe the threat of a language dying out is.
Why are languages being endangered or going extinct?
There are many reasons why languages become endangered or go extinct. For example, in this modern day and age, people need to find a common language to communicate with one another all over the world.
Hence, many languages are being replaced by other more widely used and recognised languages, such as English.
People who speak these endangered languages are the elderly, who may find it hard to pass the language on to the new generations of children.
This situation is also due to wars or migration. Sometimes, when territories are conquered, the victims of the war are pressured into integrating with a larger or more powerful group. This forces them to give up their cultural identity and language.
Today, scientists have predicted that if nothing is done, many languages will be extinct by the next century. And just like extinct animals, languages cannot be brought back to life.
How does this affect us?
Imagine you have time travelled far into the future. No one speaks English anymore, and everything associated with English has disappeared. Your main mode of communication is gone. The words you use to describe your emotions and the things around you, no longer exist. Your entire identity has been erased. That is a sad scene indeed!
Language is one of the keys that unlocks one’s cultural identity. Speakers of endangered languages are rich sources of information about the world around them. They have knowledge and insight about the plants, animals and history in the area they live in. Hence, if a language goes extinct, we risk losing a part of history forever.
Not only will traditions be gone, we will also never have the chance to learn about the language. By studying all the different languages in the world, we can learn what is and isn’t possible in a human language. This can shed new light on how the human mind works.
Protecting endangered languages and its future
Thankfully, there are organisations set up around the world aiming to study and record these endangered
languages. These organisations scour the world for speakers of these endangered languages. In particular, linguists are rushing to document these languages before they are gone. A linguist is someone who specialises in studying languages.
These researchers work with schools and the communities to try and preserve languages. They do this by conducting interviews, making audio and video recordings, and gathering as much information as possible. They also teach and train the locals to record, edit and write words and phrases in their native language. Some have even compiled it into a dictionary!
When the last speaker of a language passes away, we lose a wealth of information forever. Hence, we must create awareness and ensure that these languages can be passed on to the next generation. ★