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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.

 

Texting in Endangered Languages

If you’re trying to preserve an endangered language, technology can be both your best friend and your worst enemy. More and more frequently, however, technology has become an ally in the quest to keep indigenous languages alive. Apps and computer programs have been developed to bring these previously left-behind languages into the digital age. That makes it easier and more practical for people to keep using them.

Indigenous Language Institute executive director Inée Slaughter explained this sea change to the New York Times:

“For a long time, technology was the enemy.  Even in 1999 or 2000, people were saying technology killed their language. Community elders worried about it. As television came into homes, English became pervasive 24/7. Mainstream culture infiltrated, and young kids want to be like that. It was a huge, huge problem, and it’s still there. But now we know ways technology can be helpful.” Read more

20 Endangered British Languages

English may be the third most common language in the world in terms of native speakers, but other British languages aren’t faring nearly as well. In fact, the Telegraph reports that Cambridge University has just put together a database that includes 20 British languages that are either endangered or believed to be extinct. Some evolved here, some were brought here, but all once had active, vibrant communities in the UK.

Here’s a little bit about some of the endangered/extinct languages on the list that are native to the UK:

Old Kentish Sign Language: Now extinct, this was a type of sign language once used in Kent. In some communities in Kent, many children were born deaf, and this sign language let them communicate with hearing friends and family.

 

Polari: Derived from elements of English, Italian, Romani and other languages, this was a code language spoken by circus and carnival performers, and by homosexuals at a time when homosexual relationships carried stiff legal penalties. When gay relationships became legal, there was no longer a need to use it. Plus, mainstream exposure ensured that it no longer served its purpose as a secret language.

 

Cornish: In the 18th century, Cornish died out completely. However, it has since been revived and now there are at least 2,000 people who speak Cornish fluently. It is still classified as “critically endangered.” Read more

Which City Speaks the Most Languages?

Which city speaks the most languages? It’s not London, nor any of the metropolises of Europe.  It’s actually New York City. This city of immigrants is also the most linguistically diverse city in the world. Want to learn more? Here are 7 interesting facts about New York City and its languages.

There are over 800  languages spoken in New York City.

For reference, the most linguistically diverse country in the world is Papua New Guinea, with 820 languages. New York crams almost that many into a single city. Nowhere else comes close. Even London “only” has around 300 different languages.

Queens is the most linguistically diverse neighborhood in the entire world.queens_montage_2012_1-1

“The capital of linguistic diversity, not just for the five boroughs, but for the human species, is Queens,” according to Rebecca Solnit and Joshua-Jelly Schapiro’s  Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas.  Residents of Queens speak approximately 138 languages, according to 2000 census data.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Queens also holds the Guinness World Record for the most diverse place on the planet. Read more

Atlas

UNESCO to Release New Language Atlas

Earlier today, the AP reported on UNESCO’s release of the third edition of its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. The atlas is available online for free, and a print version will be released in May.

The atlas maps the location and gives details about each of the 2,500 languages that linguists classify as endangered or are already extinct.

According to UNESCO, these languages will probably vanish before the end of the century if efforts are not made to preserve them now.

What languages are on the list, and where are they spoken?

Endangered languages are everywhere, actually. If you look up UK on the Atlas, you’ll see 12 languages. Four of these, Norn, Manx, Cornish and Alderney French, are already extinct. Scots and Welsh are rated as “unsafe,” while Yiddish, Romany, Irish and Scottish Gaelic show up as “definitely endangered.” Guernsey French and Jersey French are severely endangered.

The US has 191 endangered languages, mostly belonging to Native American tribes like the Menominee, which has 35 native speakers remaining. Sioux, the language of the great Native American chief Sitting Bull, is listed as “unsafe” with 25,000 speakers.

Then, there are languages like Silbo Gomero, spoken by about 1,000 people on La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands. This language is made up entirely of whistles, to help shepherds communicate over long distances on the island. However, Silbo Gomero may benefit from the efforts of Busuu.com, a language learning website based in Spain that teaches endangered languages to people all over the world.

Can the Internet help preserve this language?

In the Associated Press article referenced above, Francoise Riviere, deputy director of culture at UNESCO, said “We are trying to teach people that the language of the country from where we come is important, and what counts is being proud of one’s own language.”

Hopefully, projects like Busuu.com can help people learn to take pride in their native languages. Having people across the globe learn endangered languages like Silbo Gomero can certainly help preserve a record of the language, but what’s really important is that the people of La Gomera keep speaking it and passing along to their children.

Preserving languages isn’t just about the number of speakers-it’s also about keeping the culture of the people speaking the language intact.

A New York Woman’s Quest to Preserve Quechua

Quechua is the most widely spoken group of indigenous languages in South America. However, in a world where Spanish predominates, it is extremely vulnerable.

Quechua is a group of closely related languages and dialects spoken by 8 to 10 million people in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. It was the language of the old Incan Empire. 8 to 10 million people may seem like a lot, but that’s for all languages in the family, and a glance at UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger shows that even the healthiest Quechua languages are “vulnerable,”  and several are already extinct.

Quechua’s prestige began to decline during the late 18th century, when the Spanish banned it from public use after an indigenous rebellion led by Tupac Amaru II.  Although Quechua is now an official language in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru,  it never really recovered. Bruce Mannheim, an anthropology professor  at the University of Michigan, described its current status to the Wall Street Journal:

“Quechua speakers in urban areas make sure their children speak Spanish,” he said. “And their grandchildren only speak Spanish.…Among the different languages, there are a number of them that are threatened with extinction within this generation.”

However, an initiative to preserve the language is coming from an unlikely place: the kitchen table of a 73-year old Brooklyn grandmother.

Elva Ambía grew up speaking Quechua during her childhood in Peru. In 2012, she founded the New York Quechua Initiative to promote the language through musical and cultural events, educational programs and Quechua classes held in Ms. Ambia’s home.  The group has also donated a collection of books about Quechua to the Brooklyn library.

Ms. Ambia told the Wall Street Journal she is confident the language will survive:

“I do not believe Quechua is dying. I cannot accept that. If I am alive, I am going to make it alive.”

Photo Credit:AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Cédric Liénart

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