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The Last Word: Protecting Our Languages

Nearly every two weeks, a language dies off completely.

That’s according to National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis, citing a rather alarming statistic. He also discusses how languages help to shape the way we think and look at the world, and how sad it is that around fifty percent of the languages spoken in the world are no longer being taught to children.

Take a moment and think about that. Half of all the languages remaining in the world aren’t being learned by the younger generation. When elders die off, what happens to that language?

According to nationwide statistics, only 175 native languages remained spoken in 1995, 90 percent of those were classified as moribund, meaning fewer and fewer children were learning them. With about 3,500 of the world’s 7,000 known spoken languages in danger of disappearing over the next hundred years, that’s the question that an incredibly large number of cultures need to ask. And the problem is even worse than those numbers would indicate.

Every few years, an Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing is released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It places endangered languages into one of five categories: unsafe, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered, and extinct.

Of those 3,000 or so endangered languages, around 400 have 50 or fewer speakers in the entire world and 200 of those have 10 or fewer speakers. They are dying out, and with them a large piece of the culture that they reflected and described. And that’s from back in 2009. Since then, more languages have surely been added to the list.

“Languages are the vehicles of human culture, experience, knowledge and meaning”

Globalization can be seen as one of the causes of language extinction. The language most commonly associated with globalization is English. Over two billion people speak English, some two-thirds as a second language. While there are more Chinese speakers in the world (combining all of its various dialects), English is spoken in more countries and is used more often as a second language than any other, and its use continues to grow. English is the language most often studied as a foreign language. For example, 89 percent of schoolchildren in the European Union study English as a foreign language, nearly three times the next-highest language French, 32 percent.

The spread of English alarms many who view it as a “killer language,” that is, one which displaces the use of a nation’s mother tongue as it spreads. As the language of business, English is also associated with some of the harmful excesses of colonialism and corporate multinationals. More subtly, as English displaces native tongues, culture and history are lost. Cultural and historical references inherent in words, particularly place names, are lost in translation to foreign tongues lacking appropriate analogs.

I myself spend half my time obsessing over different English words as opposed to Tigrigna or Arabic ones, and it is not just me but most of my peers seem to do so as well. At times it is quite surprising how I find it easy to express myself in English rather than in Tigrigna. How many of us find it simple to text in English or write a letter in English?! Growing up I remember whenever I was asked to write a letter to my grandmother who lived in Italy, I usually wrote the letter first in English and then translated it to Tigrigna. Funny and sad at the same time, isn’t it!

These are the times we live in; with each day that goes by I am quite sure we tend to forget a word or two, which is very alarming! I once read an article in “Hadas Eritra” that addressed this issue. The author was quite shocked by the number of women he came across who constantly told him they couldn’t speak Tigrigna nor write it properly. He found it difficult to have a decent evening out with such women. I was bemused and at the same time ashamed because I am possibly one of these people.

Whether a boy or a girl, the story is the same. We have a propensity to lose a bit of our Tigrigna as we grow up and take on English as our medium of communication. Perhaps the reason can be that past the fifth grade students take on English as a medium of instruction and that continues till they graduate from college. That is roughly ten years of academics in English. When I come to think of it… wonder we are inclined to speak English with our mates.

English is the modern lingua franca, i.e. the language of communication among speakers of different tongues. As such, English can help bridge communication barriers across cultures. A common language enables agreements between nations seeking trade or political ties. China’s and Brazil’s cooperative agreement to develop and launch communication satellites was published in English as well as Chinese and Portuguese. English has emerged as either the de facto or official language for airline and maritime travel, computers, mass media, international sports (such as the International Olympic Committee) and tourism – all industries which themselves help connect cultures.
With all that being said we still have to be aware of its negative implications as well.

At the end of the day there are different ideas about the best ways to preserve a language. One way is to encourage younger generations to speak the language as they grow, so that they then may teach their children the language as well. Teenagers might spend most of their time in school and with their friends who find it easy to talk and communicate in English but at home the mother tongue is the first medium of communication and it is important to keep speaking it. In many cases, this option is nearly impossible. There are often many factors that endanger a language, and it is impossible to control each of these factors to ensure its survival.

The internet can be used to raise awareness about the issues of language extinction and language preservation. It can be used to translate, catalog, store, and provide information and access to languages. New technologies such as podcasts can be used to preserve the spoken versions of languages, and written documents can preserve information about the native literature and linguistics of languages.

Using written documents to preserve information about the native literature and linguistics is also not without potential problems. Just because a language is written down, does not mean it will survive. Written information in book or manuscript form is subject to acid issues, binding problems, environmental monitoring problems, and security concerns.

Technology can also be used to preserve the integrity of spoken versions of languages. Many of the same techniques used in recording oral history can be used to preserve spoken languages. Preservationists can use reel-to-reel audio tape recordings, along with video recordings, and new technologies like podcasts to record spoken accounts of languages. Technology is also vulnerable to new technology. Preservation efforts would fail if the technology to listen to or watch such as audio tape recordings or video tapes is lost.

Finally, when talking about trying to preserve the language of a culture and a country, it is not merely that we are hoping to protect a single group of people and their heritage, but keep something from being lost to all of us. There’s a lot that can be learned from the differences in languages, but if they disappear, oftentimes they are gone for good. While most people know about declining biodiversity – plants, birds and animals – many are unaware that human linguistic diversity is shrinking rapidly too. In our increasingly globalised and connected world, does this matter?

It does, because we don’t just lose a different set of words, but an entire way of seeing the world Almost everything we do is mediated through language — joking, solving problems, giving directions, building houses, sharing our hopes and fears. Each language has unique ways of expressing these things. Usually, when a language is lost, a huge amount of culture, experience and knowledge is also lost

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