Why worry if languages die?

Professor David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Languages responds:

How do languages die?

How do languages die?

A language dies only when the last person who speaks it dies. But you know, some people say it dies when the second-last person who speaks it dies. Because then the last person has no one left to talk to. Well, of course, languages have come and gone throughout history as communities have come and gone. But what's happening now is something quite extraordinary.

How many languages are dying?

How many are dying?

There are about 6000 languages in the world, more or less. Nobody knows the exact number. And of these, people think that about half of them are so seriously endangered that they are likely to die out in the course of the present century. Now the present century is a hundred years, half is 3000 languages, so that means one language is dying out somewhere in the world, on average, every two weeks.

Why are they dying?

How does this happen?

There are all kinds of reasons why languages die. One is the physical reasons when people are affected by famine and disease and earthquake. Another is genocide, when some countries deliberately try to stamp out a small language. The main reason is globalisation. That is, there are some huge languages in the world, like English and Spanish, and Arabic and French, and these are like steamrollers crushing the smaller languages that they find in their path.

Can anything be done?

What can be done?

A great deal can be done to preserve an endangered language. The first thing is that the people themselves must want the language to be preserved. That's very important. The second thing is the powers-that-be must want the language to be preserved. They must have a respect for the minority languages that are in their care. And the third thing that has to be there, of course, is cash. It costs quite a lot of money to preserve an endangered language. Think about it - you have to train the teachers, you have to write books for the children, and all that sort of thing. It doesn't cost an extraordinary amount of money, but it does cost a bit. So without money, endangered languages don't have a positive future.

Why should we care?

Why should we care?

We should care for exactly the same reason as we care about the biodiversity of the planet — the preservation of the various species of plants and animals. Languages are exactly like that, except they are the intellectual diversity of the planet. There are something like 6000 visions of the world expressed by the 6000 languages that exist. Half of those visions are about to disappear. And I mean disappear. Because think of it like this: when a language dies which has never been written down, it is as if it has never been.


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