Why Global Diversity Depends on Preserving Endangered Languages.

You’ve probably heard that Eskimos have more than 50 words for ‘snow’. But as Inuit languages decline and younger generations tend toward English, the beautiful complexity of these and other endangered languages is getting lost.endangered languages

Unless you’ve studied linguistics, it is difficult to grasp the vast scope and extraordinary variety within the world’s languages. For some perspective, consider the following: Approximately seven billion people inhabit earth. They conduct their lives in one or several—multilingualism is actually the global norm—of about seven thousand different languages.

Although the data are inexact, by the end of this century, linguists believe that at least 50% of the world’s roughly 7,000 languages will exist only in archives and on recordings. On average, a language dies every four months.

This means that language is becoming less diverse. In fact, the native tongue of more than three billion people is one of only about 20 different languages. On every continent, we see people giving up their ancestral tongues for the dominant language of their region’s majority.

But WHY should we care?

This is a legitimate question. After all, language assimilation definitely benefits individuals. When the majority speaks a dominant language, like English, Mandarin, or Swahili, speaking that language is key to accessing education, jobs, and other opportunities. So it’s not surprising when many parents, especially in immigrant communities, decide not to teach their children their heritage language seeing it as a hindrance to success in life.

But the loss of languages passed down for millennia, along with their unique arts and cosmologies, may have consequences that won’t be well understood until it is too late to reverse them.

We lose more than just words.

Endangered languages represent far more than imperiled words. Languages open a window into cultures and heritage. They provide a body of knowledge accumulated across generations. And they offer a valuable way to study the neural networks of the human mind.

1. We lose a piece of human history.

A people’s history is passed down through its language. When a community loses its language, it often loses its cultural identity at the same time. Endangered languages often end up going extinct due to pressure of some kind (for example, communities are forbidden by law to write or formally teach their language, like ethnic Kurds in Turkey). So this loss is often felt as a symbol of defeat.

Consequently, the loss of a language often leads to a loss of cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life. Saving these pieces of human history requires translating everything from prayers, myths, ceremonies, poetry, and technical vocabulary to everyday greetings, conversational styles, humor, and terms for habits, behaviors, and emotions. This is a tall order. Frequently, traditions are abruptly and quite literally lost in translation.

2. We lose an accumulated body of knowledge.

Much is lost from a scientific point of view as well when a language dies. A people’s language represents the institutional knowledge gained over generations. Information about the early history of the community, the terrain, the geography, the zoology, the pharmacology, the botany and more can be lost.

In the case of Cherokee, for example, the language was born of thousands of years spent inhabiting the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Cherokee words exist for every berry, stem, frond, and pond in the region and these names also convey whether something is edible, poisonous, or has some medicinal value.

We never know where the next innovation or brilliant idea might come from. We lose ancient wisdom when we lose languages.

3. We lose distinct pathways of thought.

 Finally, languages are ways of interpreting the world and no two are precisely the same. As such, they provide insight into neurology, psychology, and the linguistic capacities of human beings. Different languages offer distinct pathways of thought and frameworks for solving problems.

Studying languages is also one way linguists learn about human cognition. By exploring what all the world’s languages have in common, we can find out what is and is not possible. This in turn tells us a lot about the human mind and how children develop complex understandings of language systems so quickly. The fewer languages there are to study, the less we are able to learn about the human mind.

Even beyond learning about the human mind, there is a pure diversity argument. In the same way we are concerned about endangered species and the loss of biodiversity due to the changing climate, we should worry about endangered languages. They offer variety equivalent to the diversity of the world’s flora and fauna. Whether or not it says anything about how they think, the fact that there is a language in New Guinea that uses the same word for ‘eat’, ‘drink’, and ‘smoke’ is inherently interesting.

WHAT can we do to preserve endangered languages?

Communities that want to preserve or revive their endangered languages have several options. A growing number of conferences, workshops, and publications now offer support for individuals, schools, and communities trying to preserve languages.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is that of Modern Hebrew, which was revived as a mother tongue after centuries of being learned only in its ancient written form. In New Zealand, Maori communities established nursery schools staffed by elders, called kohanga reo, which means ‘language nests’.

Because there are so many languages in danger of disappearing, linguists are trying to learn as much about them as possible, so that even if the language disappears, all knowledge of the language won’t disappear at the same time. Researchers make videos, audio recordings, and written records of languages in both formal and informal settings, along with translations.

Linguists also work with communities around the world that want to preserve their languages, offering both technical and practical help with language teaching, maintenance, and revival. Yes, we can create dictionaries and grammars, but we can help in other ways too. Using our experience teaching and studying a wide variety of languages, we can help communities preserve their own languages taking advantage of the technology that is available.

Diversity is at stake.

What is actually at stake in all of this is diversity. The writer Victor Ségalen puts the problem in simple, clear terms: “when diversity shrinks, so does humanity.” If one day, all seven billion of the world’s population came to speak only one language, eat only one type of food, dress exactly the same way, and think the same, we would all mourn the loss of diversity. Let’s make sure this doesn’t happen!

This month, Alpha Omega Translations is doing its part to help preserve one endangered language. Our CEO, Dimitra Hengen, is traveling with a BBC reporter to interview the last speakers of the whistled language of Antia, a village in Evia, a Greek island, which locals call “Sfyria” from the Greek word Sfryrizo (‘to whistle’). The unique language of whistles dates back to the time of ancient Greece.

For more information, see our previous post: Whistled Languages: A Disappearing Relic from Antia, Greece. We’ll also be documenting the trip and reporting back. So look for more about this fascinating endangered language coming soon!

Category: Translation Services

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