We often hear of the plight of the latest animals that have been added to the list of endangered species, but rarely do we take the same interest in languages.
According to UNESCO, there are an estimated 7,102 languages spoken around the world today, of which 2,301 are spoken in Asia and just 286 in Europe. Of all those languages, around 2,000 are spoken by fewer than 1,000 native speakers, which places them firmly into the endangered category. But while the loss of languages is nothing new, the rate at which languages are dying out is greater than it has ever been before, with 3,500 languages expected to become extinct by the end of this century.
Why are languages dying at an unprecedented rate?
Historically, there are many different reasons why languages die out. Civil conflicts, natural disasters and world wars are all responsible for the loss of indigenous languages. In the 21st-century, the loss of languages is more likely to be the result of native speakers dying out or shifting to another language.
A common example of language loss in action is migrant parents who pass on their native language to their children, who in turn go on to favour the dominant language of the country they live in to avoid socio-economic disadvantages and even discrimination.
The internet has long been considered one of the primary contributors to language loss. It relies on just a handful of dominant languages (primarily English, Mandarin and French), which prompts people around the world to abandon their own languages in favour of those that are popular online.
Technology to the rescue
Although the internet has been part of the reason why so many languages are endangered, it is also helping to save them. The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages is one not-for-profit organisation that is working passionately to protect these languages. It publishes scientific papers, conducts linguistic fieldwork and equips locals with the resources they need to document their own indigenous languages and create online talking dictionaries.
Another initiative working to preserve indigenous languages around the world is The Endangered Languages Project. Partnered by Google, the web platform encourages language enthusiasts and professional linguists to sign up and upload language samples in text, audio and video format to a huge database with a simple search function.
The online language-learning platform Duolingo has also diversified its offering in recent years to help contribute to the preservation process. It is focusing on Native American languages such as Navajo and is encouraging thousands of young people to learn the languages of previous generations.
Africa fights to retain its native tongue
In Africa, many native languages are no longer being taught in schools in favour of English, French, Portuguese and Mandarin, with the hope of ensuring a better socio-economic future. Of course, that comes at a cost, with many younger Africans losing their grasp of the continent’s 2,144 indigenous languages.
To tackle this, younger Africans are using technology to empower parents to teach their children indigenous languages. YouTube is one platform that’s being used to create tutorials that teach parents the importance of passing their language on and how to teach their children effectively.
With smartphone adoption on the rise, African entrepreneurs are also creating voice-based messaging apps that allow people to communicate in their native tongues. With literacy rates still a problem in some parts of Africa, this allows people to communicate in a modern way without snuffing out indigenous languages.
There’s no such thing as a minority language at Linguistica International
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