Endangered Languages: A Consequence of Prosperity?

Are languages dying as a result of economic growth? That’s the conclusion of a new study from researchers at the University of Cambridge.  But does it have to be that way? Dr. Tatsuya Amano, who led the study, has a background in animal extinction. Given that one in four languages around the world are threatened with extinction, the researchers decided to analyze where the languages most under threat were located and what those regions had in common. They found that the most developed regions of the world, like the US, Europe and Australia, had the highest rate of extinctions. As Dr. Amano explained to the BBC:

“World languages are now rapidly being lost. This is a very serious situation. We wanted to know how the extinction is distributed globally and what are the main drivers of this…As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and educational spheres. People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold – economically and politically.”

Is language death a necessary consequence of development, though? Should we just let threatened languages die off in the name of spreading global prosperity? Some people certainly do see it that way. Tim Worstall of Forbes says that “ we shouldn’t worry too much about languages disappearing: because that is a signal that economic development is happening, people are becoming less poor.”  He advocates letting them die, but preserving recordings and dictionaries and other documentation for scholars to study. 

That argument ignores a few very important points, though. First, as a rule,  when a language dies people tend to feel like they’ve lost something of value, an important part of their cultural identity. Consider how many different groups, from Native Americans to minority language speakers in Europe, go through considerable amounts of  trouble and expense  to try to preserve or resurrect their languages.  In theory, at least, it should be easier to keep them from declining in the first place.

Besides, we now know that it’s not really an either/or choice between learning a dominant language like English and learning the native language of a given community. As long as children are exposed to both languages at an early age they are quite capable of learning both, and switching between them as required for business.

Also, as Gregory Anderson, the president of Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages pointed out on al-Jazeera, from a historical perspective most cases of language extinction aren’t voluntary. There is almost always some type of force involved:

“There is a whole complex of historical and social factors, including discrimination … and disenfranchisement behind communities who abandon their language,” Anderson said. “It’s in many cases a response communities have to being mistreated and having their very identity devalued.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments!

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