Wednesday , June 19 2024
Money and genius grants can't revive the hundreds of languages native to the Americas that have died out over the last few centuries.

Language Matters: Rescuing Dying Languages

Inside the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, Turkey
Inside the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo credit: Critical Lens Media

In the final commencement address of his presidency, Barack Obama told the U.S. Air Force Academy’s newest crop of graduates: “We can’t be isolationists. It’s not possible in this globalized, interconnected world.”

Like it or not, our world is more interconnected than ever. One downside is that languages are disappearing off the face of the Earth faster than linguists can track them. According to National Geographic, “By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth – many of them not yet recorded – may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain.”

A bald statistic like that seems overwhelming. How can the Earth’s ever more interconnected nations, cultures, and tribes preserve their native languages against the dominance of a handful of tongues that hundreds of millions now speak? In the big picture, maybe we can’t. But searching Google News for the word “language” reveals a wide variety of efforts to do just that.

Just a sample from today’s search:

Canada: The CBC reports that a new aboriginal radio station will work to revive the K’omoks language by broadcasting for six hours a week in that indigenous tongue, which only around 20 people still speak competently. (For what it’s worth, most of the rest of the station’s air time – 106 hours a week, to be exact – will consist of country music programming. Don’t enough people speak that already?)

United States: The last fluent speakers of Myaamia, the native language of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, died in the mid-20th century, according to a National Science Foundation press release. But a Native American linguist named Daryl Baldwin has not only learned his late grandfather’s language, but gone well beyond Myaamia to help “endangered language communities find [and digitize] linguistic archival information.” His work has just earned him a MacArthur “genius” grant.

Of course, no amount of money or genius can revive the hundreds of languages native to the Americas that have died out over the last few centuries. According to the website of the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition at Indiana University: “Only 8 indigenous languages of the area of the continental United States currently have a population of speakers in the U.S. and Canada large enough to populate a medium-sized town.”

Switzerland: Thousands of Swiss (estimates vary) speak a Romance language called Romansh. But though it’s one of the country’s four official languages, opportunities to study it academically are dwindling. Warns the president of an organization that promotes continued use of Romansh, “a language that is no longer studied and taught at university level will drop to a local dialect.”

Australia: First Languages Australia tells us that of the hundreds of tongues spoken on the continent when Europeans first arrived, “fewer than 150 indigenous languages remain in daily use, and all except roughly 20 are highly endangered. Of those that endure, only 10% are being learned by children and those languages are usually located in the most isolated areas.”

Guam: Not everyone mourns the loss of indigenous languages. Per an op-ed in Pacific Daily News, “everyone on Guam who can speak Chamorro can also speak English. In fact, all (or most) of these people speak more English than Chamorro…Learning to speak Chamorro is about as useful as learning to speak Esperanto or Latin. It is a language from a different time and place.”

Languages that still have millions of speakers can also be threatened, as the following two examples show.

Nigeria: A politician is advocating for the preservation of the Yoruba language, which he says is slowly going extinct. Assemblyman Olatunbosun Oyintiloye urged specifically, reports The Eagle Online, that “traditional rulers, being custodians of [the] language and culture of Yoruba people, must speak and promote the language for the advancement of the race,” calling for a state law requiring Yoruba be taught in all schools.

India: The Tribune notes the 50th anniversary of the establishment of a state where Punjabi would be an official language, after decades of attempts by the British Raj to stamp out the indigenous language. “At least two new generations of Punjabis have grown up reading Punjabi whose parents and grandparents had never studied Punjabi. These new generations are discovering the beauty of Punjabi poetry and the richness of Punjabi prose.” Punjabi has over 100 million native speakers today.

In (hopefully) unrelated news, the same Google News search tells me that Lindsay Lohan has given Vanity Fair an explanation for her “unusual new accent.” I’m too scared to look, but if you must, here’s the link.

A few top colleges and universities in the U.S. are moving to reinstate language requirements. Princeton, for example, is proposing to require all its undergraduates to study a foreign language, regardless of whether they’re already proficient in a second language. Per the university’s Task Force on General Education: “Enhanced language instruction would prepare students for deeper and sustained immersion in international contexts and give students the tools needed to more fully appreciate a different cultural worldview.”

Good for Princeton. But exposure to foreign languages and cultures might be even more important for those students President Obama addressed at the Air Force Academy. Some of them are sure to see Obama’s “globalized, interconnected world” up close.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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One comment

  1. Dr Joseph S Maresca

    Today, we have the capability to preserve indigenous languages through advanced media, as well as, artificial intelligence (AI) systems. AI may be used to assemble a community of experts to develop rule structures pertinent to any language, as well as, the common core vocabulary.

    The study of language itself aids in our understanding of culture, the recording of the historic record in an area and fine nuances generally incomprehensible except to experts. As time marches on, the technology becomes more sophisticated and ongoing excavations shed more and more light on linguistics never before appreciated or fully understood.

    Ultimately, our space exploration efforts will take us to places like Mars. Here, the local exploration of caves could yield art, handwriting and elemental tools/utensils employed many centuries ago.