Over the past 100 years, the world has lost around 400 languages, which averages out at around one every three months. However, linguists predict that around 50 per cent of the remaining 6,000-plus languages will be extinct by the end of the century, with some believing the human race will one day be monolingual.
We’ve looked at the arguments for and against the preservation of ancient languages, and explored what can be done by those who want to protect dying tongues and, crucially, whether or not it’s in humanity’s interest to keep these languages alive.
Is it Possible to Save Dying Languages?
One of the greatest problems linguists face when trying to save a dying language is the difficulty of tracking down native language speakers. Many speakers can pass away without ever being traced, while the very fact that speakers tend to be few and far between makes it even harder to connect up the dots and keep a language alive.
Distance is once again an issue in that it provides barriers to conversation. Languages with just a few hundred speakers can quickly die out if the speakers don’t have the opportunity to use the language, meaning that languages can fade away even when its former speakers are still alive.
In one close call, linguists noted the near demise of the pre-Columbian Mexican language Ayapaneco, which was almost lost when a dispute between the two surviving speakers prevented them from conversing for many years.
These are just a couple of the threats facing the some 570 languages listed on Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, with thousands more considered at risk.
Why Should they be Saved?
Thankfully for Ayapaneco, a reconciliation made it possible for the language to recover. But is it right to continue to fight to preserve ancient languages?
There are some who argue that language loss is just as inevitable as the loss of species that occurs on a daily basis around the planet. In some cases, even the remaining speakers of endangered languages have objected to artificial efforts to save them in the past.
Among those who have objected are linguists who believe preserving unpopular or unknown languages can limit human progress, and prevent the younger generation from taking advantage of the vast access to technology, business and education that is so apparent today. Coming from an alternative angle, renowned linguist Salikoko Mufwene has argued that languages are constant variations rather than a species of animal, and as such should be born and die fluidly rather than be preserved by force.
However, there are still many linguists who argue the opposite, stating that these native and endangered languages are just as important as their more well used counterparts. In particular, noted linguist Peter Ladefoged argues that language is a central aspect of culture, providing communities with a means of expressing their unique world view.
Additionally, he suggests that when a language is only used within a particular group of people, it becomes a tool for connection and the creation of a sense of community – a concept international marketers may be familiar with when looking to connect with new overseas audiences.
What can be done to Save Endangered Languages?
Many argue that the answer to saving ancient languages is to capitalise on modern day trends, and social media is fast becoming the go-to tool for linguists and anthropologists hoping to restore lost tongues. For some campaigns, this has resulted in words being used across social media sites via hashtags. Not only does this boost engagement and encourage people to learn, but it also targets the younger generation who will become responsible for ensuring the future of these languages.
However, this concept could not have been more impressively pushed to its limits than it was by Vodafone, who pledged to secure the future of Ayapaneco many years after linguists had lost hope. In a world first, the company approached the two remaining speakers of the language and encouraged them to build bridges for the sake of the younger generation. Filmed as part of the company’s social media campaign, the event prompted the creation of an Ayapaneco languages school in Mexico and heralded the reintroduction of the language with the next generation.
The arguments for saving and losing ancient languages may have become slightly blurred over the years as an increasing number of people join the fight for both sides. However, what is clear is the drive of those passionate about ancient languages; more and more people are looking to utilise modern techniques and hard work to help secure the future.
Here at Bubbles we believe strongly in the preservation of language. We know the power of talking to people in their own voice and offer translation in hundreds of different languages to ensure our clients can embrace localisation and connect with their target market via both traditional and modern methods.