Language diversity threatened in areas with high economic growth, study

When languages die, especially indigenous ones, a large part of culture and history disappears along with it

Sand Talk
Sand Talk - (thevisuallinguist.com)

Renee Lewis america.aljazeera.com 3 September 2014

High rates of economic growth are a driving factor behind global language extinction, with one-quarter of all native tongues classified as "threatened," a new report has said.

"As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and economic spheres," Tatsuya Amato, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology. "People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold - economically and politically."

Out of around 6,000 languages around the globe, 1,705 fit the criteria for "threatened" status. When languages disappear, especially those of indigenous peoples, it represents a significant cultural loss for future generations.

Efforts to prevent the disappearance of these languages are thwarted by a lack of understanding of the threats to indigenous languages, according to scientists behind the report, published in the journal Proceedings of Royal Society B on Wednesday.

Drivers identified by researchers include small population size or number of speakers, small geographical range, and population aging or decline in speaker numbers. They added that languages in higher latitudes - including North America - are especially vulnerable and are strongly linked to economic growth and development.

Special attention must be paid to vulnerable languages in areas that fit these criteria, the study warned, if the languages are to be preserved.

Gregory Anderson, president of Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, told Al Jazeera that minority languages are disappearing at alarming rates.

Indigeous Languages

The northwest region of North America was identified in the report as particularly vulnerable, and Anderson said his organization has worked to help some Native American tribes in Oregon State to preserve their language using scientific documentation, training programs and modern technology.

"We work with the Siletz tribe, and the non-federally-recognized Tillamook tribe. We’re building electronic resources with them and turning them into legacy materials as the languages have virtually no speakers left, so we maintain and further the recordings that do exist of speakers there," Anderson said.

When European colonizers arrived to the United States, there were more than 300 different native languages, and today only 175 remain, according to the MIT Indigenous Language Initiative. Forty-five percent of the remaining languages are almost extinct, with only a handful of elderly speakers.

Until the mid-1900s, Native American children in the U.S. were often sent to government-run boarding schools and prohibited from speaking their languages. 

"There is a whole complex of historical and social factors, including discrimination and disenfranchisement behind communities who abandon their language," Anderson said. "It’s in many cases a response communities have to being mistreated and having their very identity devalued."

With the disappearance of language, especially indigenous ones, unique cultures and histories are also lost.

"As indigenous languages die, so too do integral parts of indigenous people’s cultures," United Nations Deputy Head of Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-wha Kang said in a statement.

"Without the appropriate linguistic terminology available to express indigenous philosophies and concepts, indigenous peoples lose some of their ability to accurately define themselves in accordance with their traditions and to convey these traditions to future generations."

Sand drawing as a language
Sand drawing is a form of verbal art - (Photo David Hancock Australian Geographic)