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Language diversity is representative of humanity’s wellbeing. And it looks as though it may be in ill health.

Friday 18 December 2009
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The variety of tongues we speak says a lot about our cultural, social and ethnobiological relationships. Giles Crosse listens to troubling voices suggesting we’re rapidly damaging this balance.


Xam, a Southern Khoisan language used by hunter gatherer communities of Southern Africa, known as San, was translated as ‘diverse people unite’. There are no speakers of Xam left today.

The translation seems an apt metaphor for many planetary problems. But ironically people uniting by learning English, Indian or Chinese and rejecting unique dialects is just what we don’t want.

The colonial war which led to the destruction of the Xam and their culture is typical of historical urges to wipe out language. This is effective because language embodies the history, traditions and identity of a culture. Where invading countries want to subdue indigenous peoples, breaking their language is a pretty effective way to start.

And while we hope such irresponsible violence may be behind us, the rush to globalise, to industrialise agricultural tribal lands and push remaining indigenous peoples further into the Amazon doesn’t seem so far removed from the nightmares of history.


Word death


“There are primarily two reasons why languages die, we actually know a lot more about how languages end than how they begin,” says Dr Mark Turin, Director, World Oral Literature Project, University of Cambridge.

“The issues include speakers of the language dying, but often there are other issues like mass migration involved. There are other things which can be influential including political change, or tsunamis and extreme weather events.”

“There is also the more common language shift, places like Papua might undergo language shift where you see a nationalisation,” he continues. “This can be damaging as often in the third world the languages are among the first thing to become eroded as people move away and the model increasingly makes them keen to learn a more global form of communications.”

“Although there are over 6,500 languages spoken currently around the world, well over 90 per cent of the global population speak just a small number of these languages,” explains Marion Bittenger of Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program.

“Although a precise count is not available, it is thought that hundreds of languages are classifiable as seriously endangered. These lesser known languages might become extinct for any number of reasons, and each language comprises a unique combination of social, historical and environmental factors.”

“Genocide and disease, in conjunction with discrimination and assimilation over the course of several generations often combine to reduce the number of speakers and the ethnic and linguistic vitality of native cultures. Subsequently, dominant languages come to represent economic survival and success.”


Finding the light


The problem, says Sylke Riester, European Managing Director, Rosetta Stone, is that a wealth of knowledge is contained within each of the world’s languages, regardless of the number of its speakers. “Information about the natural world and ways of living and thinking are lost when a language is lost. The loss of this information weakens humanity’s potential for survival as a species.”

“Beyond the information that is lost in these circumstances, we are firm believers that a language forms the backbone of a culture, and when any language dies, we lose an important part of our global heritage and society.”

There are now myriad global programmes attempting to protect such forms of communication, from Turin’s World Oral Literature Project to the National Geographic (NG) Enduring Voices programme. NGs interactive map shows only too clearly just how widespread the threat is.

“Linguists can engage in documentation efforts to record languages prior to their disappearance,” says Riester. “But the survival and vitality of a language within its culture will result from both internal factors, the adaptability, initiative and determination of the speakers themselves, for instance.”

She also points to external factors like language prestige, and the availability of resources to support linguistic maintenance.

“It’s vital to understand why these are crucial issues.” agrees Turin. “Culturally language is a way of transmitting knowledge, there is so much bound up in songs or sayings, and these are the elements which are being lost.”

“There’s a responsibility to try and maintain ethnobotanical variety, there are something like 6500 languages worldwide and a tenth might be documented. Future generations will have less diversity, less access and awareness of this cultural richness.”


Turning the pages


“It’s important to realise that documenting a language however is not the same as regenerating it, there’s a far wider human and ethical responsibility.” continues Turin.

“Communities can work to help regenerate language, it’s of benefit for both cultural and ethical reasons for them to do so. If you look at biodiversity and you also look at environmental diversity, you see that in areas where there are more niche species there tend to be more niche languages, home to an incredible overall diversity.”

“This logically occurs because such areas can demand less travel, but this correlation is vital if we think in terms of elements like medicinal opportunities which are bound up in the history of these languages. There are of course other needs, of course cultures strive for globalisation, for better jobs and economic opportunity.”

This is where tomorrow’s balance will have to be found. When the Japanese Ainu’s land was assimilated back in the 1860s, the traditional hunting and gathering grounds of the Ainu people was declared as Japanese territory and was given to Japanese immigrants, according to Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning data.

The Ainu language disappeared virtually overnight. According to a Mercator data on a survey conducted by the Hokkaido Government in 1999, 23,767 persons identified themselves as Ainu. To the present day, many Japanese citizens fear discrimination for being Ainu and for that reason deny their origin. Most scholars working on the Ainu language assume that less than ten speakers are proficient in that language.

Whilst stealing other’s land in today’s planet is less culturally acceptable, plenty of states worldwide still endorse assimilation. And the rush to speak English and urbanise in search of Western aspirational capitalism has strong potential to further weaken global linguistic diversity.


Variety is the spice of life


“When a language dies, it usually represents the death of the culture within which it existed. The loss of cultural diversity, similar to the loss of biological diversity, weakens the global fabric, and is detrimental to all of us.” says Riester.

“This need not come at the expense of language.” argues Turin. “We can take an ‘and’, ‘and’ approach to language, so different from the Imperialist approach of ‘you will speak English’.”

“Then we develop a multilingual environment to the benefit of all. Globally we risk becoming very poor if we lose multilingual expression, we don’t want to be imagining futures where that is the case.”

Yet more programmes like the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project or the Foundation for Endangered Languages are doing all they can. But it’s also about personal goals. In a world where culturally rich minorities aspire to watching flatscreen televisions showing English films, it’s unsurprising diversity suffers.

‘Every 14 days a language dies,’ says NGs Enduring Voices website. Realigning global expectations to cherish individuality, plus the uniqueness that comes with variety, may be the best way to protect such riches for future generations.

What are your views?  Not sure? Read the resources below for more information. Add your comment below. We welcome your thoughts and proposals. Not a Planetary Citizen? Sign up and start making a difference!


National Geographic / Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages Reports:
Synopsis of Enduring Voices Expedition to Australia
Synopsis of Enduring Voices Expedition to Siberia, Russia
Enduring Voices—Paraguay expedition report
Synopsis of Enduring Voices Expedition to Arunachal Pradesh, India
Synopsis of Expedition to Bolivia


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