The modern world has a rich linguistic tapestry, with around 6,500 to 7,000 languages spoken across the planet. There is no fixed figure, as academics dispute whether some are distinct languages or whether they are variations of the same language.
However, those in the translation services sector believe the figure to be just shy of 7,000.
With seven billion people in the world, it would be easy to imagine that there are plenty of speakers for each of the 7,000 or so languages. However, according to the Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages, between 50% and 90% of our current languages will cease to exist by the year 2100. That equates to between 41 and 75 languages being lost every single year for the next 84 years.
Why are so many languages endangered?
A language becomes endangered when its speakers die out or shift to another language. History has shown us that political actions, military uprisings and even natural disasters can all have devastating consequences for languages. However, globalization and modern technology have vastly accelerated the pace at which languages are dying off.
Language is an integral part of our cultures and our history. With each language that becomes extinct, we lose forever a piece of our global heritage. It is for this reason that efforts are being undertaken around the world to preserve the use of endangered languages or, where it is too late for preservation, at least to make recordings of the languages that are about to be lost. Given the rate at which languages are being lost though, it is a race against the clock.
Languages on the brink of extinction
In Mexico, the Guardian reported in 2011, just two speakers of the centuries-old Ayapaneco language still survive – and the two of them are not on speaking terms. American scholars and linguists were racing to produce a dictionary of Ayapaneco before the language was lost entirely, but there are many more instances of languages that are dying out without such heroic efforts to document and ‘save’ them.
Documenting languages in this way provides us with the possibility that they can still exist as dead languages, rather than being lost forever and becoming extinct. Latin is the classic example – there have been no native speakers of Latin for many hundreds of years, but thanks to its use in the church the language has not been lost entirely. Its influence is also still felt thanks to the natural development of the Romance languages, among others.
The fierce survivors
While many languages are absorbed in this way as part of the natural evolution of the human race, many more are simply lost to the sands of time.
However, there are some languages that have defied history in order to survive to the modern day. Catalan is a prime example.
Active work undertaken to attempt to stamp it out instead caused the language to stand out as a symbol of cultural heritage and independence. It became more than just a language – it was something to be fiercely proud of and to protect and promote. Today, according to figures compiled by Wikipedia, Catalan is the 16th most spoken language in Europe, with more speakers than Portuguese, Danish, Swedish or Finnish.
Welsh is another fighter, though the latest figures show that just 19% of the population of Wales speak it. It is still in decline, but work is underway to try and fight its loss. The number of Welsh-speaking schools is on the up.
The Welsh Assembly has committed significant funding to making it more relevant in the modern world, through the production of apps in Welsh. There are campaigns to encourage its use on social media and some popular television programmes have sparked renewed interest in this ancient language.
What can we do to help?
Despite such measures, the fact remains that between 50% and 90% of our languages are likely to be lost within the next century. To combat this, we need to love and value language as part of our heritage. Language learning in schools – and the way that language learning is presented – is a key part of this. If pupils can be inspired by passionate linguists to keep our heritage alive then there may be hope on the horizon for languages like Welsh.
For languages like Ayapaneco, there is too little time left to put plans in place to keep them alive. But we can do our part to preserve their history by capturing them through dictionaries and recordings, to prevent their sound from being lost entirely. It’s a detailed and largely thankless task, but one that speaks volumes about our attitude to language and its importance in shaping the world we live in today.
Ultimately, we need to love language in all its forms and do what we can to preserve and protect it. We won’t be able to save every endangered language, but we will certainly be able to save some. When it comes to our cultural identity, each one we save is a victory for humankind.
Louise Taylor is a freelance writer who writes for the Tomedes Translators’ Hub, as well as a range of online and print media.
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