I periodically talk about language and culture in this forum. Typically, my main point is that when a language dies the culture dies with it. The Pacific Islands are littered with many different languages, particularly, in the Melanesian countries, and I often hear how some of them are in constant danger of being lost. Nevertheless, language loss is not just a Pacific region issue, it is a world issue.
Recently an interesting, new study from the World Wildlife Fund measured the threat to languages using a scale that tracks how threatened species are, and found that languages are disappearing alongside plants and animals. Jonathan Loh, a research associate at the Zoological Society of London, believes that not only are many languages steadily losing speakers, but the rate of decline, globally, is actually very close to the rate of decline in populations of wild vertebrate species. He states,
“Thousands of indigenous languages spoken around the world are being replaced by one of a dozen or so dominant world languages like English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese.”
Loh argues that that languages are dying off due to many of the same issues that plants and animals face. “Some of the drivers that are driving the extinction of biodiversity — such as increasing global population, increasing consumption of natural resources, increasing globalization and so on — are applicable to languages as well,” he says.
Loh explains that languages have a lot of specific local knowledge built in. “The cultures have evolved in a particular environmental context, so they have an extraordinary amount of traditional ecological knowledge — knowledge of the local species, plants, animals, the medicinal uses of them, the migration patterns of animals behavior.” So when the languages die off, much of that knowledge goes with them. When children stop learning the language, for example, they also stop acquiring that traditional knowledge.
Languages are disappearing mostly quickly in Australia and the Americas. “About three-quarters of the languages of the Americas are under the threat of extinction,” Loh says, and “95 percent of the indigenous aboriginal Australian languages are … declining extremely rapidly.”
“And, as with species,” he warns, “when a language is lost, it’s gone forever. You can never get it back.”
Coconut Palm, Cook Islands