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Disappearing Languages

Many linguists predict that at least half of the world's 6,000 or so languages will be dead or dying by the year 2050. Languages are becoming extinct at twice the rate of endangered mammals and four times the rate of endangered birds. If this trend continues, the world of the future could be dominated by a dozen or fewer languages.

Even higher rates of linguistic devastation are possible. Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Center, suggests that as many as 90 percent of languages could become moribund or extinct by 2100. According to Krauss, 20 percent to 40 percent of languages are already moribund, and only 5 percent to 10 percent are "safe" in the sense of being widely spoken or having official status. If people "become wise and turn

it around," Krauss says, the number of dead or dying languages could be more like 50 percent by 2100, and that's the best-case scenario.

The definition of a healthy language is one that acquires new speakers. No matter how many adults use the language, if it isn't passed to the next generation, its fate is already sealed. Although a language may continue to exist for a long time as a second or ceremonial language, it is moribund as soon as children stop learning it. For example, out of twenty native Alaskan languages, only two are still being learned by children.

Although language extinction is sad for the people involved, why should the rest of us care? What effect will other people's language loss have on the future of people who speak English, for example? Replacing a minor language with a more widespread one may even seem like a good thing, allowing people to communicate with each other more easily. But language diversity is as important in its way as biological diversity.

Andrew Woodfield, director of the Centre for Theories of Language and Learning in Bristol, England, suggested in a 1995 seminar on language conservation that people do not yet know all the ways in which linguistic diversity is important. "The fact is, no one knows exactly what riches are hidden inside the less-studied languages," he says.

Woodfield compares one argument for conserving unstudied endangered plants?that they may be medically valuable?with the argument for conserving endangered languages. "We have inductive evidence based on past studies of well-known languages that there will be riches, even though we do not know what they will be. It seems paradoxical but it's true. By allowing languages to die out, the human race is destroying things it doesn't understand," he argues.

Stephen Wurm, in his introduction to the Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing , tells the story of one medical cure that depended on knowledge of a traditional language. Northern Australia experienced an outbreak of severe skin ulcers that resisted conventional treatment. Aborigines acquainted with the nurse told her about a lotion derived from a local medicinal plant that would cure the ulcers. Being a woman of broad experience, the woman didn't dismiss this claim for non-Western medical knowledge. Instead, she applied the lotion, which healed the ulcers.

This incident and similar ones have resulted in a general search throughout Australia for medicinal plants known to aboriginal people through their languages and traditional cultures. The search has to be fast because most Australian languages are dying. When they go, the medical knowledge stored in them will go too.

As Michael Krauss expresses it, the web of languages is a "microcosm of highly specialized information. Every language has its own take on the world. One language is not simply a different set of words for the same things." Just as we depend on biological complexity for our physical survival, we depend on linguistic complexity for our cultural survival.

Some language loss, like species loss, is natural and predictable. No language exists forever. Just as plants and animals have appeared and disappeared over the millennia, languages evolve, grow, and spread, and eventually dwindle and die. Sometimes they're replaced by their "descendant" languages, as Italian gradually replaced Latin. Other times they're forced out, as the ancient Etruscan language was when Latin speakers overran the Italian peninsula.

Language extinction is accelerating today for some of the same reasons as species extinction?population pressures and the spread of industrialization. The global economy often forces small, unindustrialized communities to choose between their traditional language and participation in the larger world. East Africans need to speak Swahili for success; Central Europeans need to speak Russian; and lately, the whole world seems to need to speak English. Sometimes these languages coexist with the local language. More often, they eventually replace it as older speakers die and younger ones adopt the more-useful tongue.

As Nicolas Ostler points out, "Modern media have produced a strange phenomenon, giving children a source of knowledge about the world which is independent of the knowledge that comes from their elders in their own community. [Since] it conveys a sense of wealth that is not available in most places...it is not surprising that children are seduced by it."

Linguist Leanne Hinton believes that even strong national languages might have some worries. The European Union, for instance, is increasingly concerned that English will eventually replace some European languages, since it's the only language that many Europeans have in common.

Pressure to abandon a language in favor of a more dominant one has historically been direct and forceful. In nineteenth-century Australia and the United States, native children were sent to boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their own language. No public or official use of native languages was allowed. The English government used similar methods to forcibly repress the Celtic languages of Ireland and Wales.

Although recent language policies in all three places attempt to reverse this trend, for many languages it is simply too late. Besides, even now, speakers of the dominant language take occasional backward steps. The government of Australia's Northern Territory recently decided to discontinue bilingual education programs, while the Internet provider America Online has banned the use of Irish in its "Peace in Ireland" chat group. Proponents of English as the official language of the United States severely restricted bilingual education in California in 1998 with the passage of Proposition 227.

Repressive language policies are common in many parts of the world. East African countries actively encourage citizens to abandon tribal languages in favor of Swahili or another "unifying" common language as a way of promoting loyalty to new governments. Minority languages are routinely repressed as a first step toward repressing the minorities themselves. One recent example is the Kosovars' struggle to continue speaking Albanian freely in the face of Serbian policies to the contrary. Although interest in language preservation is on the rise in some quarters, many people have an equally strong interest in stamping out minority tongues.

The deck is stacked heavily against the world's minority languages, but the case isn't hopeless. We've seen that, with effort, plants and animals can be brought back from the edge of extinction. Languages, too, can be turned around. In fact, they have an advantage over biological species because they can be revived even after they have died.

The Celtic language of Cornish, once spoken in southwestern England, expired abruptly in 1777 when its last living speaker died. Reports of its death may have been exaggerated, however. Cornish has made a comeback in recent years. Using surviving written documents, descendants of Cornish speakers began to learn their language and even speak it to their children. Road signs began appearing in Cornish and English. Now, about 2,000 people speak Cornish.

Another example of a resuscitated language is modern Hebrew. Hebrew survived for centuries as a religious and scholarly language. In the late nineteenth century, a movement led by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda reintroduced Hebrew into Palestine as a spoken language. After the founding of Israel, Hebrew was taught in the schools and is now the common language of Israeli citizens.

Other languages have risen from their cultural sickbeds to new life. Welsh and Navajo speakers revitalized these dying languages through "immersion" schools where children used their ancestral language every day. Both languages have grown in numbers of speakers over the past few decades.

A different approach is needed where few speakers survive. Leanne Hinton helped start the Native California Network, a program that teamed fluent speakers of native Californian languages (all of which are nearly extinct) with apprentice speakers. Although the apprentices could not immerse themselves in a linguistic community, they immersed themselves in conversations with the "master" speaker.

Reintroducing a language into a community, Hinton says, is a long, multistaged process. Nonetheless, graduate apprentices have had an effect. New Hupa speakers, for instance, teach Hupa in high school and have succeeded in getting it to count as a foreign language for college entrance requirements. Apprentices also teach their own children the language and meet with groups of adults for weekly conversation.

"If the drive to save their languages continues," says Hinton, "there may be a turnaround. I always think back to...a Karuk man who said that, given that all Karuk speakers are in their eighties, the language will be dead in twenty years, but if someone in their twenties learns it now, the language will survive for another fifty or seventy years." Thus, even a few such language apprenticeships may help avert the wholesale extinction of minor languages.

In the past, language revitalization was mostly left to the speakers of the language. It was a haphazard process, dependent on individual initiative and whatever funding could be scraped together. Recently, linguists and other interested people have started a number of umbrella organizations for a more comprehensive approach to language rescue.

The Alaska state legislature made one of the earliest organized language-preservation efforts when it established the Alaska Native Language Center in 1972. Its work is typical of many such organizations. The Center concentrates on documentation, the importance of which, says director Michael Krauss, should not be underestimated. "That documentation," he says, "could be the basis for revival at any time in the future, if people have the will." Because it's easier to keep languages alive than to bring them back from the dead, the Center also supports bilingual education.

Many groups, including some Native Californians, don't consider preservation an adequate goal. They want their language to live as communal speech.

Nicholas Ostler suggests that people in monolingual cultures (English speakers in the United States, for example) learn and use another language and encourage others to learn one, too. If you are already multilingual, use all the languages you know, especially in front of small children. A vote for bilingual education and positive language policies is also a step in the right direction.

Hinton offers similar suggestions. "The main thing that people in the United States need to do," she says, "is to recognize when other languages are being discriminated against in some way and to do what they can to stop it." We should remember, she continues, that most people in the world are bilingual or multilingual. Speaking one language all the time is not the norm.

We face two alternative scenarios for the future. In one, the world becomes increasingly homogenized as minority cultures and their languages are swept away in the oncoming tide of standardization. The accumulated knowledge of millennia disappears, leaving the world a poorer place. In the other scenario, minorities keep their cultural integrity, and minor languages continue to exist alongside larger ones. Which scenario comes to pass depends to a large extent on our actions now.