The numbers are astonishing: around 200 different languages are spoken in Europe alone, and over 7,000 worldwide. But many of them are considered threatened. Due to globalization and networking, world languages such as English, Spanish or Chinese are becoming more and more important internationally, while regional dialects, in particular, are on the verge of extinction. So now in part 2 of this series, let’s talk about the various reasons for a language’s demise and, above all, what exactly we can do to preserve it.
Why Do Languages Change Or Disappear?
The occurrence of languages and their distribution among the world population is impressive. There is a very inhomogeneous picture in the currently 193 countries worldwide. There are still 13 languages in Germany, over 800 in Papua New Guinea, and over 700 in Indonesia. Around 200 languages are spoken in Europe, 180 in the USA, 400 in India, and almost 2,000 in Africa, about 500 of them in Nigeria alone. And within Europe, there is also a big gap. Of the approximately 200 languages, 40 are in the Caucasus.
How did this amount of languages and dialects even emerge? There are different reasons. For example, geographical features play a role. Papua New Guinea has many rugged valleys, and Indonesia has many islands that are separated from each other. This has favored the emergence of independent languages. There were hardly any supra-regional administrations before colonization in many countries that would have forced a uniform language. The individual tribes and population groups formed their own languages. Conversely, the emergence of political structures and globalization led to regionally limited languages being abandoned in favor of a homogeneous linguistic community or a higher-level official language.
It is a natural process for some languages to disappear and new ones to emerge. It has always been there. But what’s noteworthy is the increased pace over the past century. Internationally spoken or locally dominant languages are now replacing many languages threatened with extinction. The cultural peculiarities of minorities suffer as a result. The Internet, a product of digitization and globalization, also plays a significant role in the fact that minority languages are in danger of disappearing and, with them, an essential part of the peoples’ cultural identity. It would be important that local languages also play a more significant role in public information policy and that niche languages find their way into the public and general acceptance – especially on the Internet. But what if a culture doesn’t have an alphabet, like many indigenous and other minority languages? Their transmission takes place only in oral form, and if only older people speak these languages without passing them on to the next generation and, at the same time, have not been written down to this day, threaten to perish in modern times.
How To Save A Language
To save languages from total extinction, states can enact rules and laws. In Ireland, e.g., Irish has not only been made an official language alongside English, but it is also a compulsory subject in schools. However, there is no Irish daily newspaper, and there are few other media in the Irish language. This limits its use as an everyday language. However, media, books, and all kinds of entertainment are significant in motivating young people to learn a language.
This motivation works best when the community feels strongly connected to the language and combines its history and culture with its language in the present. An example of this is Catalan, which is still actively spoken by more than 11 million people today and is not even on the UNESCO list. This connection with one’s language and one’s roots is a social task for which everyone must bear the responsibility to succeed. And there are also many efforts to transcribe minority languages that were previously only transmitted orally, to save them from extinction.
Childhood is the best stage of age to bring a person closer to one’s culture. Mainly because children learn quickly and, second, it’s easier to lay the roots for connectedness at this age. For this reason, there are programs in several countries that bring older people together with children so that they can converse in their own language. Such programs already exist for Maori and also for Frisian, which is even taught in some kindergartens.
It’s important to point out the benefits of linguistic diversity and multilingualism regularly. The more languages we learn, the better cognitive skills we have that support us in everyday life and bring us culturally closer to other world regions. That’s why it so crucial to support language communities worldwide and pass on each other’s knowledge.