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Does language death matter?

August 15, 2006

According to the American Summer Institute of Linguistics, there are 51 languages with only one speaker left, 28 of them in Australia alone.


In his book, Language Death, David Crystal (C.U.P. 2000) gave some surprising statistics. Although there are an estimated 6000 languages spoken today, only about 600 are safe from the threat of extinction. Indeed, languages are dying at the rate of two per week. Only 4% of languages are used by 96% of people and 25% now have fewer than 1000 speakers As English language professionals...

...the loss of other languages might seem like good grist to our mill. The more people who abandon other natives tongues to learn English the better for us. But it’s not that simple, is it?

Crystal gives five reasons why we should mourn language death: the value of cultural diversity, languages as expressions of identity, languages as repositories of history, as part of the sum of human knowledge, and as interesting subjects in their own right.
I concur with all these reasons. But can anything be done to halt the demise of linguistic variety? After all, globalization exerts forceful pressure on us to all be able to use an international language. Whether in the longer term that will be English, a Chinese dialect or Spanish, even, remains to be seen. But all the pressures are for linguistic homogeneity rather than diversity.

Crystal suggests various roads to language revitalization: increasing the prestige, wealth, and power of language speakers; giving the language a strong presence in the education system; giving the language a written form and encouraging literacy; and access to electronic technology. But would any of these routes lead to language preservation?

My own feeling is that language is organic. It flourishes and perishes as societies grow, evolve and sometimes die out. Artificial attempts to keep a language alive are probably ineffective. But I am also drawn to the metaphorical and symbolic significance of language. In the biblical story of Babel, mankind’s hubris was punished by divine intervention: multiple languages and multiple identities were created to confound humanity’s mutual understanding. I wonder if the gradual imposition of a single language would help human understanding or hinder it. Is globalization similar to the tower of Babel and bound to fall because we will never understand each other, or will it lead to a gradual homogenisation of cultures so that we all turn into clones of each other? If that were the outcome, I’d rather have linguistic and cultural diversity any day!

Let me have your views.

Bye for now,

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