Endangered and minority languages around the globe are facing extinction at an increasing rate – currently at around one every fourteen days.
It is believed by many linguists that by the end of the 21st century more than half of the world’s ~7000 languages will die out entirely and be forgotten in the wake of global language titans.
The problem faced right now by this issue isn’t simply that people don’t care; it’s that they don’t even know it’s an issue!
You may think to yourself: “Well it’s not like there’s a whole lot I can do about it right? I mean that sucks but I’m not a Ph.D with a research grant and a mobile recording studio or years of documentation training!”
And that right there is the problem. Endangered language revitalization and documentation efforts are not a public domain crisis such as endangered animals, cancer research or LGTB rights; they’re a relative unknown to the common man.
Sure every couple of years National Geographic does a short blurb about a vanishing culture, written eloquently by yet another Ph.D about research being done by Ph.Ds from The University of Awesome Ph.Ds. They wrap it up beautifully with exquisite photos by Steve McCurry and their readers (many of whom have Ph.Ds) stroke their chins and go “hmm….interesting, now how about those polar bears!”
Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with pursuing your Ph.D and going on to do great work in your field(s), especially if they involve anthropology or linguistics, but the situation isn’t going to get better unless we take the endangered language crisis out of its comfy little dissertation-swaddled nest atop the Ivory Tower of Academia and make it an issue that the Average Joe can get behind.
In order to do this we need to make it a hell of a lot easier to understand and a hell of a lot less boring.
Average Joe doesn’t have a Ph.D and he doesn’t care about how cool you think glottal stops are, nor does he know what fricative, alveolar or pharyngeal mean. He isn’t going to read your abstract. He doesn’t know which country the Yanomami come from or what the difference between Germanic and German is.
It’s not that he isn’t smart – he just hasn’t ever had it presented to him in such a way that didn’t put him to sleep or that impressed upon him any sense of personal concern.
So how then, you may ask, are we supposed to make this issue popular, like polar bears and baby seals? It’s hard to make endangered languages adorable, but we can make them fun, interesting and otherwise cool.
We need to stop using language exclusive to scientists and professors. We need to make colorful, beautiful photographs, posters and infographics. We need to spread indigenous music, and make an appeal to popular media, and give these cultures a strong Internet presence.
David K. Harrison’s book “The Last Speakers” does a very good job of creating an easy to read piece with personal touch for to the issues facing the peoples and languages he has studied. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this subject – linguist or otherwise.
Newspapers and most media in the United States are supposed to be written at an 8th grade comprehension level. Sometimes the topics may be more meaningful or complicated than a 13 year old can always understand – but the language itself shouldn’t be over their teenage heads.
Endangered languages and their decline need to be presented this way.
For those of you who are academics – keep doing what you’re doing because you’re doing great! Just share a little more with the rest of us.
I know there are thousands of people out there who would be thrilled to read about and learn about your work and about indigenous and minority cultures around the world that they’ve never heard of, but they won’t get the chance to hear about if nobody sticks it in front of them in a manner they can digest and relate to.
Heck they might even donate!
Your work cannot be realized in its full potential without the help and support of the masses, and in order to gain that support we need to rethink our approach. Hard scientific research, in all the stuffy glory of academia does not appeal to the general public.
It’s time to change our strategy.
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