400. This is the approximate number of languages that have become extinct in the last century. What is even more worrying is that it is predicted that this number will continue to grow in the next 100 years. According to UNESCO, half of the 6000+ languages still spoken in the world today will vanish by the end of the next century. Not only will languages disappear but also their cultural wealth and ancestral knowledge, particularly for indigenous languages. So what is the cause of all this?
Many point the finger at economic development and globalization. With most countries having one dominant language, minority languages lose their sense of importance. Speaking the national language fluently, allows for better educational and job opportunities. For example, many immigrants decide not to teach their children their heritage language with the belief it could negatively impact the child’s success in life. They see no sense in spending time learning a language which cannot be applied to everyday life.
However, there are other reasons for the disappearance of languages over time. In the case of the last two surviving speakers of Ayapaneco, they simply refuse to speak with one another. A long lasting feud between the two has placed Ayapaneco on the critically endangered list. Salikoko Mufwene, a linguist at the University of Chicago, grew up speaking his native language, Kiyansi. But being away from it so long he “realized Kiyansi exists more in my imagination than in practice…This is how languages die”.
In an effort to raise awareness of endangered languages, UNESCO created an interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. This tool allows for the community at large to monitor trends for languages all over the world. But there are people out there in our world, trying to save these dying languages before it’s too late.
Tom Belt a native of Oklahoma and Cherokee speaker began his campaign to preserve the Cherokee language back in 1992. In this time of crisis where only 400 people spoke the language, Belt meet with other Cherokee speakers to discuss ways in which they could save their heritage language from extinction. With support from the Cherokee community, Belt began volunteering at the local school and teaching the Cherokee language. Eventually, classes in the Cherokee language spread to the local university, where Belt now teaches. Technology is also paving the way to help preserve the Cherokee language. Windows 8 is available in Cherokee and in addition a Cherokee app has been created, giving speakers the ability to text in their language which consists of 85 letters.
Bringing attention to this worldwide problem has also inspired global companies to take action. Last year Vodafone helped the locals of Ayapa build the first ever school where Ayapaneco would be taught to the local children. Such efforts even brought the quarreling men of Ayapa, Manuel Segovia and Isidro Velazquez back on speaking terms as they realized the capacity of what was happening. Take a look at Vodafone’s inspiring video of the two men reuniting to preserve the Ayapaneco language.
Education and technology are encouraging more and more people to hold on to their heritage languages. UNESCO’s campaign is also driving awareness of this issue, helping to support the long-term sustainability of minority languages in the world. Hopefully this century will not prove what is predicted and the importance of learning heritage languages or simply more than one language will dominate what was once lost in the shadows of economic development.
BBC Future, Rachel Nuwer, “Why We Must Save Dying Languages” (June 6, 2014): http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140606-why-we-must-save-dying-languages