June 16, 2009

World's many languages are dying out; can we stop it?

According to the new atlas of UNESCO, among the 6,000 languages existing in the world 2,500 of them are about to disappear or have already stopped their existence. About 3,000 languages irrevocably lose their carriers every year. Thus, out of 97 percent of the population of the planet only 4 percent are carriers of the languages. Most likely, by the end of the 21st century dominating languages will supersede 90 percent of all the existing ones.

All these figures testify to globalization, strengthening of communications and mass media. So now UNESCO is very anxious and working very hard to at least be able to support those languages that are ceasing to exist, thus, to support the cultural variety of the planet.

As UNESCO’s Director-General Ko├»chiro Matsuura said "the preservation of languages, which are a vector of humanity’s intangible heritage, is a priority for the Organization." He added: "As the guardian of cultural diversity, UNESCO must reinforce its action to encourage governments to fight against the decline of thousands of languages. This in no way means weakening dominant languages, but rather to build truly multicultural societies in which nobody feels excluded."

In the UNESCO’s report on viability of world languages it is not given the actual definitions of language, dialects and adverbs. UNESCO’s experts made the atlas of disappearing languages and ranged their viability, considering six groups of factors.

1. Transfer of language from generation to generation
2. Absolute number of carriers
3. A fraction of native speakers in the population
4. Areas of the use of language
5. The use of language in the new environment
6. Availability of teaching materials

"About 97% of the world’s people speak about 4% of the world’s languages; and conversely, about 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by about 3% of the world’s people. Most of the world’s language heterogeneity, then, is under the stewardship of a very small number of people; at least 50% of the world’s nearly six thousand languages are losing speakers. Even languages with many thousands of speakers are no longer being acquired by children. We estimate that about 90% of the world’s languages may be replaced by dominant languages by the end of the 21st century."

These are the countries with the greatest number of disappearing languages:

India: 196
USA: 191
Indonesia: 147
China: 144
Russian Federation: 136
Australia: 108
New Guinea: 98
Canada: 80
When UNESCO was assessing the viability of languages, it considered the states’ and society’s attitude to it. The state can support or ignore languages, encourage or not encourage their studying, stimulate assimilation, force to it, or forbid the use of less dominating languages.

Finally, there is one more interesting aspect: the attitude to language in the environment of its carriers. Studying of the native language can be encouraged with the whole society, or the society can be complete indifference to the native language.

Many people worldwide, including myself, believe that when languages disappear, culture starts to stagnate. And while many would say: “So what? It doesn’t affect me, my life?” It actually does affect, as global warming or overpopulation does; it is just less noticeable, because it does not affect your every day life, per say.

While estimates suggest that in the next 100 years perhaps five per cent of species will be wiped out. Should we care? If everyone spoke the same language, wouldn't we all be able to communicate with each other better? With English the language of technology and commerce and with only Chinese and Spanish serious rivals, we might even feel a glow of chauvinism about our triumphant tongue.

But as Canadian journalist Mark Abley says “languages are beautiful, complex living things, and the world will be hugely impoverished if so many are wiped out. As each language disappears, so does knowledge built up over centuries, some of which may be useful to the world. It's like the burning of the library at Alexandria, which destroyed most of the learning of the ancient world.”
Most people would accept the argument for conserving unstudied endangered plants – they might, for example be medically useful – but the local language that explains the use of Amazonian herbs, for example, is also highly valuable. As Andrew Woodfield of the Centre for Theories of Language in Bristol puts it: "By allowing languages to die out, the human race is destroying things it doesn't understand."

Certainly languages embody radically different world-views. English pronouns, for example, are impoverished compared to many languages. Abley comes across one Aboriginal language, Murrinh-Patha, which has at least eight words for "they". As a result, "you have to keep human relationships in mind all the time. It's as though the language requires you to think in certain ways." (Source: Peter Culshaw as he reports for Telegraph. UK)

Does it mean that the next generation to come might not even know what Aramaic, the language of Indigenous Aramens, or the language of Jesus is dying out. Within a few decades at most, Maalulans believe, Aramaic will have passed into history.

"In 10 or 20 years, it will be dead. The children don't speak it anymore, and all the young people are moving to Damascus," said Maria Hadi, 30, who grew up speaking Aramaic but moved to the city to attend high school and has forgotten the language of her childhood. Maalula is the last place where they still speak Aramaic as that Christ fellow would've spoken it two thousand years ago, and only about two thousand people still speak it fluently.

Listen to one of the endangered languages, Okinawan.

Do we care? Of course, we do! I'd love to hear what you think.

1 comment:

Brian Barker said...

I believe in the need to protect endangered languages.

However, although there are at least 7,000 languages throughout the World, an increasing number are endangered through the linguistic imperialism of both Mandarin Chinese and English.

Interestingly the following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008. http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-URL_ID=38420&URL_DO=DO_PRINTPAGE&URL_SECTION=201.html

The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September.
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=eR7vD9kChBA&feature=related or http://www.lernu.net