Languages are already becoming extinct, but the prediction is that the advent of the next century will see more than 50% of the world languages already extinct. Fourteen languages die every day and some of them have not yet been recorded and thus forever become lost languages to the world. This is primarily because the languages that are most endangered are those without written form. The languages that we lose every day are languages that exist mainly in oral traditions, passed on to younger generations through songs and stories.
Lost Languages: Causes of extinction
When a culture is colonized by another culture that is more powerful than itself, the usual recourse is for its language to be spoken less and less by its constituents. In some instances, official policies imposed by the colonizers contribute to the extinction that happens eventually. In other situations, the native peoples themselves choose to adopt the language of the dominant culture because speaking the language puts them in a position above others in colonial society. Often, the next generation is raised speaking the language of the dominant culture and the native tongue falls to neglect.
What we lose everyday
Language plays a crucial part in the identity of the culture that speaks it. Losing a language means losing an integral part of the culture that it identifies.
Language is a cognitive function. The study of the characteristics and formation of any language in particular contributes to our understanding of human cognition, how we store knowledge, and how we communicate with others. Linguistics affords us a glimpse to how the human brain functions and processes information.
And since language is used by many indigenous peoples in passing onto their young their understanding of the world that they live in, much knowledge about the environment and the plants and animals that populate it are lost without hope of recovery.
Lost Languages: Revitalization efforts
In order to preserve the rich cultural knowledge that is inherently contained in these endangered languages, efforts are being focused on formulating and implementing policies to increase the number of speakers. Fortunately for some languages, it is not too late and the process is not yet irreversible.
The National Geographic Society has a Project called “Enduring Voices” that seeks to keep a record of existing languages and provide a means of sharing the diversity of the languages that the world population speaks. This project is an ongoing effort done in collaboration with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. The goal of the project is to document for the purpose of preservation the most “threatened” indigenous languages. Enduring Voices is currently identifying the most critical “language hotspots” in the world today.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is also dedicating its resources to advocating and providing support to the cultures that need help in preserving and/or revitalizing their native languages. Its Endangered Languages Programme provides the necessary tools, from assessment of trends, to implementation of good practices and provision of advice and expertise. The UNESCO’s Endangered Languages Programme also provides tools for monitoring and helping governments in their current efforts to help their local communities.