Language Diversity: What’s the Big Deal?

Languages are not immortal. They need about 100,000 speakers at any given time to stay alive. Right now there are roughly 7,000 languages that represent the culture and collective experience of humankind. It’s estimated that by the end of the century, we’ll probably be down to less than 3,000. That’s mindboggling– 4,000 languages that will have, unfortunately, made it to the ‘Extinction’ list.

We know how languages evolve, but how do they die? The reasons are not generally happy ones and often don’t reflect man’s most glorious moments in history. None of us typically get the warm fuzzies when we think of destruction of habitat (in this case that of a language’s speakers) or oppressive political mandate… let alone genocide, mass demographic shifts due to poverty and war, forced assimilation, and even the introduction of electronic media as a replacement of (not just an addition to) one’s mother tongue. Most linguists, me included, go into grieving mode at the knowledge of yet another language no longer among the land of the living.

Why all the drama? Why should we care about endangered languages? How about the following three reasons, just for starters? Look them over and see if they resonate with any of your concerns.

Reason #1: The sustainability of our planet may depend on the viability of endangered languages. This may seem like a stretch, but consider that many of our most critical medicines are plant based and grow in areas where indigenous peoples have the best access to, and understanding of, local biodiversity. Linguist David Harrison explains, “The people who live there are the experts on the environment… They know more about the ecosystem, the plants and animals, than scientists typically do. And it’s not just a list of things they know; it’s a hierarchy of knowledge, how things fit together.” Collaborators on the “Enduring Voices” project add, “Much of what humans know about nature is encoded only in oral languages. Indigenous groups that have interacted closely with the natural world for thousands of years often have profound insights into local lands, plants, animals, and ecosystems – many still undocumented by science. Studying indigenous languages therefore benefits environmental understanding and conservation efforts… And when languages are lost, most of the knowledge that went with them gets lost.” In other words, language diversity = biodiversity.

Reason #2: The more we understand the workings of language, the more we understand the workings of our brain. And I don’t mean our own language (whatever that may happen to be). I mean our 7,000 living languages. The way we speak determines how we think. For example, the particularities of a language’s grammar and vocabulary actually determine the way we process information. (Please see blog, Accent Training: It’s Not Just What You Say But How You Say It) And because of this, the larger the language variety, the more cognitive scientists can explore the capabilities, and limitations, of the human mind. Peg Barratt, NSF division director for behavioral and cognitive sciences, sums it up perfectly, “We want to know what the diversity of languages tells us about the ways the brain stores and communicates experience. “

Reason #3: Languages are the keys to our historical record and provide insight into creating our future. They tell us, almost step by step, how diverse peoples have coped with similar problems, challenges, organizational change, and community aspirations throughout millennia. They show us how diverse people problem solve, look for and find opportunity, and contribute to the well being of the group. Wait a minute! This last reason is beginning to sound a whole lot like a diversity and inclusion initiative!

And that’s the point. That’s the connection between language and our world today. The goal isn’t to all be the same. Au contraire. It’s to harness our diversity to problem solve, leverage opportunity, and help the group (aka organization) advance. As noted in the Endangered Languages Archive, “The more perspectives we have… the better we can hope to understand.” That’s what living languages do! They help us navigate our world. They help us excel.

To find out about current initiatives to sustain ‘endangered languages’, check out: “The Linguists”, a PBS special with linguists David Harrison and Greg Anderson.