How Economic Growth Kills Languages

Rennett Stowe/Flickr

Rennett Stowe/Flickr

Languages are dying and with them we lose diverse cultures and traditions. What kills indigenous languages? Why should we care?

The Reality of Language Loss

It’s long been known to scientists that of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken on the planet, presently at least half will go extinct by the turn of the 21st century. UNESCO projects that more than 3,000 languages will soon disappear as the last persons speaking them die.

Inter-cultural conflicts, imperial attitudes, and oppression all play critical parts in the language loss story. However, scholars have discovered that economic growth plays a major role as well.

Quite expectedly, most endangered languages are spoken by the communities that depend on natural ecosystems which are shrinking in size, such as those in the rain forests. As industrialization and economic aspirations gain momentum, primitive cultures are pushed into the background.

With the advance of the world economy, the languages that bring it become dominant and root out the local dialects.

There are years of substantial research to prove these conclusions. A recent study by University of Cambridge scientists shed more light on the issue. Dr Tatsuya Amano, from the Department of Zoology, performed a comprehensive study on the decline of a great number of languages worldwide, and found that developed countries are at risk of losing their linguistic diversity.

The areas where language extinction is running rampant are in the countries seeing rapid economic growth. In addition, regions receiving little support in otherwise prosperous countries such as the north-western areas of the US and Canada are losing considerable cultural value.

Worryingly, the study concludes that the more rapidly economy develops, the higher the rate of language disappearance.

Margaret Noodin, assistant professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, spoke on the subject of language loss recently with NPR.

She says that the problem is being aggravated by the decreasing number of people growing up in a fluent linguistic environment. Thus language loss gains even more speed, as there are fewer new native speakers being created to pass on the linguistic traditions.

Why Linguistic Diversity Matters

Verbal language is used not only to communicate immediate thoughts but also to pass on knowledge, identity, traditions and experience to the next generations. A language forms as a people form around it, encoding into it their cultural values and ideas.

The major problem with languages going extinct is that with them we lose a lot of valuable information, the customs, and principles that shape the identity of entire nations of people.

As obscure languages are hardly, if at all, subject to any written rules, their preservation is largely dependent on the number of speakers who use them for their daily communication, work, education and all other spheres of life.

Pressed by the need to acquire a more broadly-spoken language in pursuit of individual upward mobility, however, minorities drop their tongues and dialects, losing indigenous traditions, cultures and folklore. In effect, globalization wipes out not just linguistic diversity, but defaces cultural and national multiplicity.

The worst-case scenario, which Dr. David Crystal prognosticates in his book The Language Revolution, is a monolingual world, which he considers “an intellectual disaster of unprecedented scale.”

What Can We Do

Preserving endangered languages doesn’t take a magic wand. It is about the preservation of habits and heritage in their original language–passing on values and knowledge with their genuine spirit.

The economy cannot be entirely halted for the sake of saving a language. Conservation efforts should instead be directed towards reintroducing endangered languages in the spheres of everyday life, politics, and education.

One way to approach this is to promote the benefits of bilingualism among minorities and dominating ethnic groups. Highlighting the advantages of learning foreign languages could help preserve endangered minority tongues.

To support such efforts, in 2012, teams from Yale, Columbia and Cornell Universities launched a promising project in this direction–long-distance teaching of rare languages–Yale University reports.

Ironically, technology and globalization could back up efforts to preserve linguistic diversity. Back in 2012, Google launched its Endangered Languages project–an online space for speakers of rare languages. It aims to support the speakers of more than 3,000 dying tongues, providing a platform where they can discover and share content in the languages in question.

The contributors, people from all over the world, can upload videos, audio files and text messages in various languages, which other users can then comment on.

While economic growth in the areas where these fragile cultures exist has inflicted profound damage on the at-risk communities, social media may be helping in the preservation of indigenous heritage. Social media could revitalize these languages by reconnecting scattered communities.

Regardless, some might argue that placing rare languages in a social-media context might be an artificial and fruitless way to preserve them, especially those languages lacking an existing written form.

Spreading awareness of the problem of world languages dying is a gigantic task for linguistic specialists, politicians, ethnologists, businesspersons and other decision-makers and influencers.

Embracing the need for linguistic conservation could a difficult economic decision for businesses in the spheres of education, training, long-distance teaching, technology, and so on.

Encouraging language learning in any way is crucial for the preservation of languages. Our work is largely dedicated to the promotion of human languages everywhere. With us, you can learn many rare languages in order to familiarize yourself with indigenous cultures and traditions. Contact Us and let us know what endangered languages you are interested in and we’ll provide you with first-class training.