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China Says Linguistic Diversity “Not Important”

Over 1.3 billion people live in China, speaking a variety of different languages and dialects. To help unify such a diverse country, the government has long promoted the use of China’s official language, Mandarin. As a consequence, though, China’s linguistic diversity is fading. 88 Chinese languages are endangered, according to the Globe and Mail, and the Chinese government doesn’t seem particularly interested in preserving them.

The upcoming census could have been used to help quantify the problem, simply by asking respondents to select the languages they speak.  However, questions about language were not included in the form.

Chen Xizhou, a minority language expert from the Yunnan Institute for Nationalities, told the Globe and Mail:

“They didn’t ask about something that we really need to know, but they did ask how many houses people have and how many rooms. I don’t know why that is.”

It appears Chen Xizhou can stop wondering. Fang Nailin, the Vice Director of the census, answered that question for the Globe and Mail: the government simply decided that gathering the information was “not important.” Read more

How Climate Change Threatens Endangered Languages and Cultures 

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost; for none now live who remember it.” ~Galadriel

The world is changing. First of all, it’s growing hotter. Ice is melting, seas are rising. And it’s not only animals and plants that are in danger. Human lives and homes are also at stake. Cultures and languages that stretch back thousands of years may soon vanish forever, along with the lands and ecosystems that once sustained them.

How is climate change accelerating language loss? Which endangered languages and cultures are most at risk? And what, if anything, can be done?

Read more

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Teenagers Save Languages

Kids these days, right? No respect for their elders, no respect for tradition…

If you’ve caught yourself thinking something like this, here’s a nugget of information that might surprise you: Teenagers in several different parts of the world are resurrecting endangered languages, using them for text messaging as well as online communication.

For example, according to Mobiledia.com, teens in southern Chile have been posting videos on YouTube of themselves rapping in a mixture of Spanish and Huilliche, an indigenous language with only about 2,000 speakers according to Wikipedia. Meanwhile, teens in parts of the Philippines text in  Kapampangan, a regional language. In parts of Mexico, young people similarly use the endangered language of Huave, with only 18,000 speakers, as a code for text messages. Read more

Why Are There So Many Languages?

Why Are There So Many Languages? 

There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world today. But why? Why are there so many languages?

It’s an ancient question, almost as old as humanity itself.  Explanations for why people speak so many languages are common in myths from cultures around the world. The story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible is one well-known example, but there are many others.

The truth is, we don’t have an easy answer for why people speak so many languages. That’s probably because there isn’t one.  Instead, linguistic diversity is a response to a variety of different elements that we’re only beginning to understand.  We may not have an answer, but here are 6 factors that encourage new languages to form.

Language May Have Developed In More Than One Place

Did humans ever speak just one language? We don’t know. There are two schools of thought:

  • Monogenesis, which holds that all languages evolved from a single ancestral language as ancient humans migrated out of Africa.
  • Polygenesis, which holds that multiple ancestral languages developed independently, as did agriculture and the domestication of animals.

So there may have been quite a bit of language diversity right from the start. But even if there was a single common human language to start out, humans would still speak thousands of different languages. That’s because . . .

People Move, and Languages Change

The main reason why there are so many languages has to do with distance and time. Groups of people are always on the move, seeking new opportunities. And languages change over time, too. Even English. Do remember trying to read Chaucer for the first time?  English has changed so much over the centuries that it’s difficult for modern English speakers to “get” Chaucer without footnotes.

What happens when you combine these two factors? Groups of people who speak a common language get divided by distance, and over time their dialects evolve in different directions. After enough time passes, they end up speaking two separate, but related languages. Read more

The Cornish Language: In Danger or Flourishing?

According to a new study, the Cornish language is in trouble. Big trouble. Researchers at University College have listed it as one of 33 languages “at risk of dying out,” along with Jersey French, Guernsey French, Manx and others.

However, in the Western Morning News, Cornwall councillor and Cornish Bard Bert Biscoe disputed that assessment. According to Biscoe:

“Knowledge and awareness of the language is growing really rapidly. There are several hundred fluent speakers and they are dedicated to teaching the language and passing it on. The numbers of people developing fluency in Cornish is increasing almost daily.”

So which is it? Is Cornish flourishing, or about to kick the bucket? Perhaps a little of both. The language began to decline after the 13th century. The number of Cornish speakers dropped rapidly after the failed Prayer Book Rebellion of the 15th century.  By the 18th or 19th century, it was considered extinct.

However, efforts to revive the language have been in progress since the late 19th century, and great strides have been made. It was officially recognized as a minority language by the UK government in 2002, and UNESCO changed its status from “extinct” to “critically endangered” in 2010. Bert Biscoe is correct that the number of Cornish speakers has been growing, and there were 2,000 fluent adults as of 2008.

Even University College professor Christopher Moseley believes that with enough effort, the language can be saved. What really matters is whether or not the language gets passed on to the next generation. So far, a small number of people have been brought up as native bilinguals of both English and Cornish. Will they do the same with their own children? Will children who study Cornish in school today teach it to their future children? The future of the language depends on it.

Meanwhile, travel planning company  GoEuro is promoting tourism to these areas as a way to save the languages on the list, according to Mashable. Do you think that’s a good language preservation strategy? We’d love to hear your take in the comments!

Photo credits: Attribution Some rights reserved by madnzany

The Yurok Language is Supposed to Be Dead

The Yurok Native American tribe has lived in northwestern California along the Pacific coast for centuries. Unlike many  Native American tribes, they still occupy a portion of their original territory and maintain many of their cultural traditions.  Like all tribes, however, their language is in danger.

The Yurok language was supposed to be extinct by now. Decades ago, linguists were predicting it would die out around 2010, along with the last generation that grew up speaking it. In  fact, the last native speaker, Archie Thompson, died last year.

However, Yurok has been making something of a comeback in recent years with aid from an unlikely corner: the local public school system. The New York Times reports that the language is taught as a foreign language in four California public high schools and two elementary schools. The classes are not restricted to Yurok tribe members.

According to Yurok teacher Carole Lewis, this is by design. She told the New York Times:

“The generation before me had an advisory group, and they said, ‘We want to teach the Yurok language to anybody who wants to learn it,’ because they were in a place where our language was disappearing off the face of the earth.”

In previous generations, Native American children were punished, often harshly, for speaking their language in school. So, this is a nice reversal.  Rick Jordan, the principal of Eureka High School, told the New York Times:

“A hundred years ago, it was our organizations that were beating the language out of folks, and now we’re trying to re-instill it — a little piece of something that’s much bigger than us.”

Yurok is now the most widely taught Native American language in the state of California. Want to hear what it sounds like? Listen to this recording of a traditional story from the University of California, Berkeley.

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Michael Fraley

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!

The Top 10 Most Endangered Languages in Europe

Every 14 days, another language falls silent forever. Linguists warn that in the next century, anywhere from 50-90% of all the languages in the world will be lost. While many of these languages are in developing countries, some are in Europe and even in the UK.

Before they disappear forever, let’s take a look at the 10 most endangered languages in Europe.

Endangered Languages in Europe: Cappadocian Greekcappadocian_greek_homeland

Country: Greece

Number of native speakers: 2,800

Cappadocian Greek is spoken by the descendants of the Cappadocian Greeks who were forced to move from Turkey to Greece in the 1920s.

Cappadocian Greek evolved during the time of the Byzantine Empire. Like the rest of the empire, the people of Cappadocia, Turkey spoke Medieval Greek. However, in 1071, Byzantine forces lost the Battle of Mazikert, and the area around Cappadocia was taken over by Turkish speakers.

The Greek speakers kept their language, but it evolved separately from the rest of the Greek-speaking world and was heavily influenced by Turkish.

After the Cappadocian Greeks were moved back to Greece, most of them learned to speak standard Greek.

Fun fact: Scholars thought that the Cappadocian variant had died out in the 1960s. But in 2005,  researchers from Ghent University and the University of Patras found around 2,800 Greeks of Cappadocian descent who still spoke the language. Read more

Preserving Languages

Every two weeks, another language disappears from the world forever. According to National Geographic, more than half of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to be extinct by the year 2100. According to Laura Welcher, a linguist with the Long Now Foundation, some experts believe the situation is even more dire, and that 90% of all languages currently spoken will be extinct by the end of the century.

Via the foundation’s Rosetta Project, Welcher is trying to use technology to preserve as many of these languages as possible.  People sometimes question whether dying languages are even worth the effort of trying to save. In an interview with Fast Company, Welcher gave an eloquent explanation:

“If languages are our how-to guides for living on planet earth, and we stand to lose up to 90% of them, then that seems like we are looking at handing our descendants an encyclopedia of human life on Earth with all of the pages ripped out, except sections X, Y, and Z.”

So, how do we preserve sections A through W? Traditionally, linguists have worked one-on-one with speakers of endangered languages, making recordings, encoding rules for grammar and compiling dictionaries. Through the use of technology like cell phones and webcams, Welker envisions a future in which people can document the languages they speak on their own, quickly building storehouses of knowledge for linguists to sift through and organize. She told Fast Company: Read more

New Online Projects Preserve Endangered Languages 

Between 50-90% of the languages being spoken today may very well be extinct by 2100. Some will be extinct much sooner than that-we lose one language every two weeks! The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages seeks to preserve endangered languages both online and in the communities they come from, and they have a couple of interesting new projects going on.

First, there’s a collaboration with streaming video site Viki, which uses crowdsourcing to translate subtitles for movies and TV shows into a variety of different languages. Viki is partnering with Living Tongues to help encourage speakers of endangered languages to translate subtitles. By doing so, they help build a record of the languages and keep them relevant for younger speakers. So far, content on Viki has been translated into 29 endangered or threatened languages and 20 “emerging languages,” according to a press release.

Living Tongues Director of Research David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore, told The Atlantic that partnering with Viki could help people who speak these languages to take pride in their native tongue:

“Suddenly you have something that isn’t a dry textbook or a grammar lesson,” he says. “Seeing it on TV or on the Internet helps them see that it’s not backwards or obsolete, it’s suited for the modern world. They can restore their pride in the language, which is really the X factor that causes language to be abandoned.”

Of course, the partnership with Viki does little for those languages only spoken by people in the remote communities, out of the reach of the world wide web.

For those languages, Living Tongues creates Talking Dictionaries available online. Two new Talking Dictionaries were released this month, as part of a collaboration with National Geographic. These dictionaries preserve the vocabulary and sounds of endangered languages while providing scholars around the world with easy access.

The newest Talking Dictionaries preserve two highly endangered languages from Papua New Guinea: Yokoim,  which is spoken by less than 2,000 people in three small villages, and Panim, spoken by 400 people in only village. Learn more about the languages and listen to some vocabulary words on National Geographic’s Explorers Journal.