Digital communication technology and international travel have become more comfortable and more accessible than ever before. This accessibility has allowed millions to live better lives and to stay connected with family members that they wouldn't have been able to keep in contact with in generations past. At the same time, this increased interconnectivity has also begun to homogenize and reduce many of the cultural aspects that made us all unique.
According to The Endangered Languages Project, "Humanity today is facing a massive extinction: languages are disappearing at an unprecedented pace. And when that happens, a unique vision of the world is lost." A language is more than a means of communication, it carries with it hundreds, if not thousands, of years of cultural heritage and history.
In this article, we are going to take a look at why languages have been disappearing at an increasing rate, why this is a bad thing, and what is being done about it. Hopefully, by the end you should have both a better understanding of this issue and what you can do to help.
What is a Native Language?
So, just what is a Native Language? Well, by definition, a native language is any language that is the original language of the speaker (that is their' native language) or of a region. Gaelic and Irish are native languages to Scotland and Ireland, for instance.
Native languages can also be used when referring to the languages of "native peoples." More specifically, the languages that existed in areas before a dominating influx of immigration from outside nations, like Europeans into North America. This is why a question that would seem counterintuitive by the original definition, like "How to learn your native language," is commonplace.
So What is Your Native language?
If you were raised in a bilingual household, in a multilingual country, what is your native language? Well, you can have multiple native languages. Your native languages are simply the ones you were raised with.
Why Should We Learn Our Mother Tongue?
Before we go any further discussing the disappearance of native languages, we should first talk about why they are relevant to our lives. A common question that allows us to address this on a personal level is, "So why should we learn our mother tongue?" The answer is threefold:
- A Native Language Strengthens Your Identity
The importance of a mother tongue language, AKA one's native language, cannot be understated. A study of any language allows you to trace much of its history and development. For many, this allows them to get an understanding of their roots and heritage that might be otherwise unavailable to them. For example, one who is descended from a Native Tribe of North America may have difficulty understanding the nuances of specific phrases and terms integral to their culture if they lack a good understanding of the tribe's language.
At the same time, organizations like The Intercultural Development Research Association stress the importance of a mother tongue language to help children take pride in their culture and roots.
- Native Languages are Living Artifacts of Our History
The language itself can tell a story of a culture by the way certain words and phrases are expressed. One of the more famous examples is the 50 variations for saying the word 'snow' that the Inuits have. This cliche is, actually, entirely accurate, and demonstrates a unique depth to understanding a snowscape that may be lost should the language be lost.
The importance of a mother tongue language is heightened when you realize it may often contain some of the only words in existence able to express a particular concept.
- Learning a Native Language Helps You to Master Other Languages
As we touched on earlier, many think of a native language as the language of their ancestors and not necessarily the one they were raised with. In these cases, we are talking about those who become bilingual or are raised in bilingual households. Bilingualism provides a plethora of cognitive benefits, such as with tasks involving executive control (paying attention, controlling inhibitions, etc.), that makes it worth more beyond only the increased ability to communicate.
The Growing Rates of Language Extinction
Languages are alive. It is not new information to anyone that languages grow and die, but these deaths are occurring at an increasing rate. Many have estimated that roughly half of the languages spoken today will have become extinct in the next century. Some estimates claim that perhaps 90 percent of today's languages will no longer be spoken by 2115.
In the past, languages would disappear for a whole host of political, cultural, or economic reasons. Many conquering empires sought to homogenize the communications of its subjects. Immigrants or refugees from war, famine, or financial issues will often emphasize the language of their new country rather than the old when raising their children. These same phenomena have been repeated throughout all of human history on every continent.
Basque may be the only language in Europe that survived the influx of the Indo-European peoples to the area 7,000 years ago.
Today, languages face a new challenge. Billions of people around the globe, of all socioeconomic backgrounds, are able to get online with relative ease. For example, you can look at a fisherman group in Laos, and the only thing different from what you would see 700 years ago is that they are now all holding smartphones with their fishing rods. At the same time, the financial and cultural incentives to conform to the larger group remains.
According to the UN, roughly 500 languages are utilized online with any regularity. Only about 250 of these languages are considered "well-established." Most social media platforms support less than a hundred languages. For context, there are currently about 6,500 languages being spoken around the world today.
But is the internet to blame? The debate has been around for a while, and some experts do argue that the internet may not be the main culprit for the increase of language death, but the facts do seem to point to the internet is the biggest purveyor of cultural homogenization.
“It is easier to communicate and conduct business online in an already-established language than to introduce new languages to the Internet.” - Dr. András Kornai
What we can say for sure is that the internet is not going away, and that language diversity is decreasing at an increasing rate. The internet must be used as a tool whenever possible to foster language diversity.
Keeping Native Languages Alive
Luckily, organizations like The Endangered Languages Project have been leveraging modern technology to stave off the extinction of languages. These groups document, preserve and do their best to proliferate the teaching of these endangered languages. Google is also partnering with The Endangered Languages Project to help provide a wiki-style discussion around each language to communally source the information of each one. Those with knowledge of rare languages are encouraged to help out, while the rest of us can do our part by promoting multilingualism in ourselves and others.
Technology can only do so much; we must support and help promote the actual learning and use of native tongues whenever possible.