While noble cries around the world ring for the conservation of the rhinocerous and the panda bear, endangered languages are understood by linguists to be disappearing without a single word or murmur in the public sphere. There are currently an approximated 5000-6000 languages in the world today, but studies shows that this “impressive” number may drop to less than half that number within less than a century due to globalisation and other factors of homogenisation.
How do languages become endangered?
Languages die simply by being forgotten. The endangered languages list grows in number through generations as the youth abandon their mother tongue as the domination of world languages renders life impossible without them. A language would be classified by linguists as being endangered when parents and elders neglect to pass on their linguistic heritage and even seldom use it themselves in everyday interactions, no matter how small the community. In South Africa alone we have 2 native languages that are on the languages critical list with one of them, Korana, only having a single recognised speaker.
Why do we care? Surely our lives become simpler with a single common language that enables everyone to communicate on a single plane of linguistics? With the loss of an endangered language it’s the associated factors that stunt our cultural potential. Traditions associated with languages die, storytelling ceases to have a set of cultural narrative plots and historical reasoning and cultural identity fall by the way side. Language is not simply a method of communication, but a critical part of diversity that encapsulates art and existence with each heard breath. Religious practices, the humour of a civilisation, mannerisms and in many cases the pride of a people is worth saving through attempting to preserve languages that are marked on the endangered languages map.
What can be done about it?
Scientists, historians and anthropology professionals around the world are launching projects to extend the life of fragile languages and creating breeding grounds for the spoken and written words to be populated for a new generation. Seminars to raise awareness about the Northen Cape San-dialects of Korana and Khomani, anthropological recordings of data through documentaries and research to create video and audio tapes of languages that will last through the ages are some of the methods being employed to save the endangered languages. Success has also been measured in promoting the teaching of languages inside kindergarten and community crèches to try ensure the survival of languages. The spoken and written word is not simply communication, but a large factor in identity and a sense of self. Endangered languages need to be preserved so we don’t forget who we are, and where we came from as global community integrates more each day and diversity becomes more important with each word uttered.
Paul Robinson is a culture and language enthusiast who gained a passion for writing while working in London as a linguist offer German, Arabic and french translation services to businesses expanding abroad.