If you ask people in the street how many languages they think there are in the world, answers will vary. A joke says that a random sampling of New Yorkers resulted in inspiring answers such as “probably several hundred.” Clearly, this is quite far away from what we know today. Funny enough, estimates have escalated over time. In 1911, the Encyclopedia Britannica implied a figure somewhere around 1,000 languages around the world at the time. That number escalated during the 20th century. During the course of time, 7,097 distinct languages have been catalogued according to the most extensive catalog of the world’s languages by Ethnologue (published by SIL International), generally accepted to be the authority in the field. Of course the number of languages has not multiplied in 100 years. In fact, languages die. It is our understanding of what a language is and how many languages are actually spoken in areas that previously had not been researched. Although it is hard to know any of this precisely, Ethnologue estimates that 34% of those 7,087 are ‘in danger’ or ‘dying languages’. Religious and missionary organizations have been historically responsible for a lot of the pioneering work undertaken in documenting the world’s languages (SIL International has an interest in translating the Christian Bible, which as of 2009, had been translated into 2,508 different languages (at least a portion of it if not the entire work), still a long way short of full coverage.
There are several organizations whose mission is to document and collect data on the world’s languages, from dormant to endangered. UNESCO says that half of the world’s languages will disappear by 2100. That means over 3000 languages wiped out from the face of the Earth. A quick look at the work of organizations like The Endangered Languages Project shows that in countries like Spain there are at least 6 languages which may disappear soon as a result of cultural colonialism (and they are not Basque, Catalan or Galician), just like in other places it will be globalization, war or climate change. The Foundation for Endangered Languages does not provide a more optimistic outlook. Whilst “world” languages such as English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, etc., are becoming increasingly valuable, small tribal languages become endangered. Minority languages in Europe do not fare better. Out of its 287 languages, 52 are categorized as dying and a further 50 are in danger. The Times of India reports that India has lost 20% of its languages since 1961.
Why do languages become extinct?
Many of today’s endangered languages are tribal. This means that they are spoken by a small group of people who have been colonized by a large, sometimes foreign, invader. Historically, colonial powers such as the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Portugal have made their languages dominant in the Americas and Asia. But let’s look at Northern Cameroon, where Ngong is close to extinction with only two speakers. The menace comes from other near populations, not from colonial French. Regions that have lived under foreign rule have some of the highest rates of endangered languages. For instance, although Greenland has a national language Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) spoken by practically all 50,000 inhabitants, most are bilingual and speak Danish as well since Danish is the language considered important for social mobility. The same can be said about the effects of Spanish on Catalan, Galician and Basque in Spain.
War and Conquest
Sometimes a language dies tragically. Wars and invasions, genocide or displacement of people can cause both the death of a language and also the culture of the people that spoke it. Human history is full of such examples, from the times of the Roman Empire displacing Celtic peoples and languages in Europe, Iberians in Spain to colonial Britain and native Americans and the aboriginal population of Tasmania.
Climate change will soon have a devastating effect on some of the world’s smallest languages, particularly those spoken in the Pacific Ocean. The film There Once was an Island powerfully documents the growing struggle of the inhabitants of Takuu, a small island fighting for survival in the South-West Pacific. The 400 inhabitants in the island speak Takuu, their own language, a member of the Polynesian family. If they are relocated to Papua New Guinea, Takuu will be absorbed and die.
Globalization, the Internet and constant interconnectedness has changed our planet forever.For good and for bad. It has offered the best and the worst in many cases. It has opened access to education but also to higher levels of intolerance, to knowledge and global brotherhood and also to the rise terrorism and nationalism.
It’s understandable that one would use an international language when communicating across the world. English played that role initially but Asian languages, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Brazilian Portuguese and Arabic have been taking a larger share of Internet content over the past few years. Obviously, learning and speaking any of these languages should benefit your job prospects and relationships with other people. Even fairly healthy languages that exist today can face extinction due to the effects of globalization. Great efforts are made in Europe to preserve national identities, but regional languages such as Breton, Alsacian, Catalan, Basque or Occitan in France have little chance of surviving a few more decades if there is no government support as in the Irish case (English is not the official language of the Republic of Ireland but Gaelic). We have already mentioned the 200 languages that have died in India since 1961, mostly as a consequence of the pressure to assimilate. This is largely the case in many communities in the world where parents choose to speak a different language to their children because they feel that to get on in life, study or work, their children will need to speak a “higher language”