“When a language dies, we don’t know what we lose with that language,” Patricia Ryan.
I recently had the pleasure of listening to a brief talk by Terry Moore of the Radius Foundation. He spoke about the origin of “x” as the character used for the unknown – specifically in algebra. While I won’t give away the whole speech, what was really striking was the very beginning where Moore discusses the Arabic origins of the word algebra.
What if Arabic was one of the estimated 200 languages that has already disappeared? What if it becomes one of the 5,400 languages predicted to disappear over the next 90 years? Would its disappearance have a discernible impact on the world?
The world is home to approximately 6,000 languages today. However, Mandarin and English are the most widely spoken with 1.5 billion speakers around the world. Another language dies every 14 days and with each language we lose a critical link to culture, history, ecology, psychology, spirituality, and tradition. We lose extraordinary knowledge – maybe the next algebra or cure for disease. When we lose rich oral histories we lose the links to our shared history as human beings.
Languages disappear when invading countries force indigenous peoples to adopt their language. They die when communities are dispersed for social or economic reasons and children are no longer taught their parent’s native language. When people carry negative attitudes toward their own language and when the speakers of the dominant language don’t realize the great value language diversity brings to the world. Languages die when governments readily and intentionally force them into obscurity.
Efforts by nonprofit organizations, governments, and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) are racing the clock with projects to preserve and revive languages. International instruments recognize inherent rights to languages and protect their proliferation. Projects designed to record language, to teach new generations, and revive languages. Private businesses like Google, are lending a hand, too. Crowd sourcing projects like Duolingo, a language learning website and smart phone application, give us a glimpse into the global future of language preservation as well.
Efforts like the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe language immersion school, slated to open in 2015, and the Endangered Languages Project are critical to the preservation of language. Through language preservation efforts we are preserving not only far-away cultures, but also our own.
For more information about language and cultural preservation and what you can do to get involved check out these resources and follow us on Facebook.
Resources on the Preservation of Language: