What is the role of language?
The first word that springs to mind for most people is ‘communication’. But if we dig a little deeper, language is so much more. Language is a cultural institution that informs the social and intellectual life of the speaker.
Most of what humans know about nature is encoded in language. A combination of stories, songs and histories passed down from generation to generation – a collection of expressive attributes that define a community.
In losing languages, we lose traditions.
Linguistic diversity is disappearing at an alarming rate. Every 14 days a language dies, taking with it a wealth of knowledge about the history, culture and environment of its society. The Centre for Linguistics confirms that although we have lost languages since the beginning of time, the recent acceleration in the speed of extinction is alarming.
Why do languages die?
Throughout human history, the languages of smaller communities have given way to more powerful groups. Children in smaller literary circles grow up learning dominant languages in school and online, and many will not see the need to teach their children the smaller, less recognized vernaculars of their local community. Many believe that the education system is biased and encourages speakers of dominated languages to develop disdain towards their mother tongues. Consequently, speakers of such dialects migrate to mainstream languages.
Although one must acknowledge that proficiency in English grants social and economic mobility, the lost languages of our ancestors past must be recognised as the building blocks behind entire civilisations.
Among factors discouraging speakers to forget their heritage are concerns that local languages don’t cultivate material benefits or economic growth. These beliefs are fuelled by continued technological development and globalisation.
A number of professional bodies including The Human Resource Development Ministry, National Geographic and the Institute for Endangered Languages are striving to preserve endangered languages by identifying the places under greatest threat and documenting details of the languages and cultures within.
This is a useful way of preserving ‘the words of languages past’, but surely prevention is better than cure? Can ‘spoken’ languages survive in today’s society despite the increasingly globalized nature of our world? And more importantly, does the solution lie in reformation of the education and employment systems?