Word Nerd: What we lose when we lose a language

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The adjective “endangered” is usually twinned with the noun “species” as the onslaught of civilization has brought about a diminution in the planet’s biodiversity.

But not only are many species on the verge of extinction—many languages are teetering toward oblivion. Of approximately 7,000 languages, it is estimated that anywhere from 50 per cent to 90 per cent will not survive the end of the century. So whereas the largest 80 to 100 languages in the world—such as English, Chinese, Urdu and French—are spoken by 4.5 billion people, there are around 3,500 languages whose total number of speakers equals no more than 10 million; an average of fewer than 3,000 speakers each. Generally speaking, a language is regarded as secure if it has over 100,000 speakers. Many languages are on the abyss of extinction, having fewer than 100 speakers.

Many aboriginal languages in Canada fall into the endangered camp. Only Cree, Ojibway and Inuktikut are regarded as relatively secure. In many of the 53 Canadian aboriginal languages, more than half of the population can’t communicate in their mother tongue and fluency declines drastically among youth.

Hilda Nicholson, a spokesperson for the Mohawk band of Kahnawake, told me that the fluency rate in the 65 and older category was around 75 per cent, but in the 6-15-year-old group, it drops to under 20 per cent. So, there is a clear sign when a language is in danger. Parents stop teaching it to children and children stop wanting to learn the language of their ancestors. The obvious role of schools is limited no matter how great the effort of the school program, as the ultimate fate of the language is determined by whether it is used on a daily basis in casual conversation.

Several things are lost when we lose languages.

First, we lose cultural knowledge. Since there are around only 200 written languages, when a non-written language vanishes, we lose beliefs and stories. These oral histories could possibly inspire us by providing a new way to perceive the world.

The loss of languages is a loss for science because a language represents an adaptive technology. For example, the Inuit language has approximately 100 words for sea ice and this instructs one about complexities not generally known in other languages.

According to Mark Pagel, a biomathematician at Oxford, languages have “particular habits of mind” and learning a specific language can possibly alter the brain.

For example, Pagel interprets the inability of Japanese adults to differentiate between “la” and “ra” sounds as meaning that on a physiological level there may be brain distinctions based on language.

The difference between Japanese and English pales when compared with some nuances we find in other languages. It was once assumed that certain sentence structures were not possible. So while one can say, “I will eat this kangaroo,” it was believed that in no language would some rational person utter “This will eat kangaroo I.” But then linguists “discovered” the Waripiri of the Australian Outback. Not only do tribesmen state in Waripiri, “This will eat kangaroo I,” they also say “Kangaroo will this eat I” and “Eat will kangaroo this I.”

By observing which rules hold and which do not (“will” always comes in the second position in the sentence), linguists have been better able to set parameters for universal grammar.

To test and refine universal grammar, linguists require a myriad of examples from diverse languages. Unfortunately, until recently the database was shrinking drastically.

“Until recently” is used in the last sentence because hope is on the horizon. This year Google introduced the “Endangered Languages Project” (endangeredlanguages.com), a website that allows people and organizations involved in language preservation to find and share the most current and comprehensive information about endangered languages. With ELP, Google provides its technology and vast storage capacity to create a headquarters where data can be shared in a variety of forms, such as text, audio and video files.


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