What do snow leopards, African wild dogs, black rhinos, and the Arikara language of the North Dakotan indigenous people have in common? They are all endangered. Just as species’ extinctions threaten the food chain and thereby the ecosystem, language extinctions hurt cultural diversity and thereby our society. To best understand the harsh reality of language extinction, we should investigate some statistics. While differentiating between unique languages and dialects, or just variations of the same language, is very difficult, researchers agree there are between 5,000-7,000+ languages alive today. Studies project that up to 50% of these languages will die out by the end of the century. Some even say the figure is higher at 80%, That is one language dying every few months! This slow and steady leak of linguistic and cultural diversity must be plugged for the sake of our children gaining the exposure to different thoughts and ways of life- exposure that stimulates appreciation and innovation. Admittedly, we, here at Little Pim, do not teach endangered languages, nor have we discussed them in prior blogs. We do, however, always hope to impart that a language is:
- Powerful in the classroom, in the workplace, and on the street
- Empowering in its ability to help cultivate creativity, cultural awareness, problem-solving skills, and pride in one’s roots
- Effectively important to personal and societal growth
In spreading this message in the past (as we will continue to do in the future), we hopefully indirectly made the case for the preservation of dying languages. Additionally, in teaching what are currently actively used languages, we aim to prevent their downfall into the endangered category one day. Yet, today, in this article, we will take a firmer stand for endangered languages, giving them a voice that might otherwise soon be taken away. It is with this voice that endangered languages might return from the edge of extinction.
It is with power in numbers that we can spread the word and reach someone in a position to change an endangered language’s course, so share this if you like the rest of the article. I will explain how we classify levels of endangerment, expound on why you and your family should care, and share what YOU can do to create a better future in which we maintain cultural diversity and awareness.
How do we know when a language is dead?
There are two main measurements of a language’s vitality, the number of speakers and the number of avenues of use.
Number of Speakers
Many languages can be said to have few speakers, but the word “few” is loose and open to interpretation. Determining the exact number of speakers of a language, however, allows linguists to be specific in distinguishing between levels of endangerment. Arikara, which you may recall is in our backyard in North Dakota, is a critically endangered language, with only 3 speakers still alive while the Cherokee language spoken in Oklahoma is classified as a vulnerable language, with only 1,000 speakers.
Number of Functions
The number of functions a language takes on, whether that be in prayer, in scripture, in school, in ceremonies, etc. can quantitatively represent a language’s vitality, because the more sectors of life the language is involved in, the more spoken it must be, and the more it veers away from the edge of extinction.
Some other factors linguists consider with regards to a language’s vitality are the age range of speakers, the number of speakers adopting a second language, the population size of the ethnic group the language is connected to, and the rate of migration into and out of the epicenter of the language.
Why do we care?
In history, conquered civilizations have had to adopt the language of their conqueror in order to fit into their social structure and economy. This is the case because language is so integral to a culture. From writing literature, carrying out rituals and practicing religion to voting in elections, all the human interactions associated with a culture involve written or spoken word. Effectively when a language dies, the culture associated with it dwindles away as well. If 50%-90% of languages die within the century, 50%-90% of existing cultures will likely die as well.
Many of these cultures that will die out only possess oral histories, so we will lose out on the knowledge they have gained from years and years of experience. Even if some of the cultures whose languages die have been documented, without active speakers, their thoughts and practices will likely be left behind in favor of the ones possessed by the dominant cultures and languages. Accordingly, our future society will lack in a diversity of thought and practice due to a lack of cultural diversity. Not only do we lose diversity of culture and thereby thought when languages die, but also when people conform to speaking one language, as is the case with English in the business world. If we continue along this path, we will become a monolingual, culturally homogenous society. In such a society, people might communicate efficiently because they speak the same language, but creativity would be strangled and progress slowed.
What can we do about it?
To prevent the fate of becoming a uniform society, we must recognize that cultural exchange is a two-way street. People speaking endangered languages are learning other languages to be able to interact with members of their extended community. While it may be hard for us to learn endangered languages, we can educate ourselves on which ones are endangered and why, learn about the cultures the endangered languages are from, and encourage their preservation. For example, the Arikara people were originally a semi-nomadic community that expertly harvested corn and tobacco. This mastery of the land gave way to power over other groups living in the plains until smallpox hit. Would this knowledge of the land past on from generation to generation in their language be lost in translation if the language died? Time will unfortunately tell.
Moreover, to avoid one major language from pushing out the others in the future, English-speaking people could learn other languages to communicate with non-English-speaking people, tapping into a whole wealth of knowledge they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. We cannot become complacent just because English is the “language of business.” Little Pim can open your child’s eyes to these other languages and vibrant cultures in the click of a button… literally. Check out our new iOS app!
Live in a Spanish-speaking community? Try our Spanish for Kids program.
Want to know more than the words for French foods on the bistro menu? Try our French for Kids program.