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What is Language Extinction and Why Should We Care?

Almost half of the roughly 6,900 languages spoken around the world today are endangered. Scarily, the rate of extinction is accelerating and there is a whole lot at stake.

Communities around the world are losing their indigenous tongue at an unprecedented rate. The grimmest predictions suggest up to 90% of the world’s languages will have disappeared by the end of this century.

A language becomes extinct when its last native speaker dies, and it’s usually the result of its speakers shifting to a lingua franca like English, Arabic or Spanish. This implies choice, but it’s often a history of marginalisation that leads to the change.

Why is it happening?

Greg Dickson, a linguist at the University of Queensland, specialising in Indigenous Australian languages explained to SBS that it can often be “ongoing historical pressures that contribute to people shifting away from a traditional language.”

Economic growth and globalisation are also key factors that are driving this global trend. A recent study found that GDP per capita is strongly linked to language extinctions, with Australia and the US mentioned in particular.

Awareness of the issue is growing and groups around the world, from small languages centres to international organisations, are now attempting to preserve and revitalise those languages on the brink.

But should a dying language be saved? And why? Here are six reasons why we should be paying attention to this issue, both for the sake of those directly affected and for society more broadly.

1. Because it’s an enormous loss of accumulated knowledge

Humans know a lot about the world, but it’s not all written down. It’s encoded in the world’s languages and most have never been recorded.

Each one contains a world of local knowledge, neatly packaged and effortlessly transmitted through speech from one generation to the next. When a language dies, we lose that culture’s playbook for how to thrive in the world – everything from local plant knowledge to unique ontologies and ways of being.

Maori father and daughter

According to UNESCO, a study of M?ori sayings revealed important new information about plant growth, soils and nutrients that was previously unknown, even by ecologists.

At a time of rapid change and environmental destruction, a diversity of perspectives is needed to face global challenges.


2. Because it hurts the environment

Indígenas Ashaninka

Indígenas Ashaninka (Photo via Ministério da Cultura /Flickr)

We tend to think of nature and culture as separate – but we probably shouldn’t. Research has shown that language loss has a negative impact on biodiversity. In a study first published in the journal Economic Botany, a loss of native Yanesha speakers in the Peruvian Amazon was shown to have directly impacted the diversity of crops.

Researchers are now thinking about diversity more holistically as we learn how nature, culture and language are intertwined. This new biocultural approach is gaining ground in international organisations and supporting endangered languages is now an environmental imperative.


3. Because a loss of cultural identity impacts on people’s wellbeing

Yurranydjil Dhurrkay quote

A quote from Yurranydjil Dhurrkay, as featured in ‘My Grandmother’s Lingo’ Illustrated by Jake Duczynski for SBS

Language loss is symbolic of cultural loss and this can have real consequences for a community.

More than just a bunch of words, language is intimately connected to culture. As endangered languages specialist K David Harrison investigates in his book When Languages Die the last speakers of a language often feel a sense of isolation, while the community feels the loss of something more significant.

The subject of SBS’s new language interactive, ‘My Grandmother’s Lingo’, Angelina Joshua explains, “Language – it’s our identity and culture, totems, countries, and skin names. Our language is very important to us.”

The Our Land, Our Languages report highlights that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who speak Indigenous languages have higher levels of wellbeing, better educational outcomes and less high-risk drug and alcohol use.

It gives speakers a connection to their culture, country and a strong sense of identity. It can even be a matter of life and death, with a study of youth in Canada showing that those who use an Indigenous language have lower rates of suicide.


4. Because bilingualism is good for us

Guarani speaker

A speaker of Guarani – the Indigenous language of Paraguay. (Wikitongues via Youtube)

Keeping Indigenous languages alive alongside international languages ultimately makes us better off because bilingualism is good for the brain.

Studies have shown that bilingualism has a range of cognitive benefits for both young and old, even delaying the onset of Dementia.

Supporting the preservation and revitalisation of endangered languages doesn’t mean discouraging use of more dominant ones. Speaking a bigger language is often a path to better education and employment, and a way to participate in the national and global mainstream.

It’s not a choice between one tongue and another, or one world and another. Different languages can co-exist and the majority of the world speaks more than one. In Paraguay, most people are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and Guaraní – the local Indigenous language. It’s recognised in the constitution, taught in schools and spoken by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. This shows that bilingualism doesn’t have to be an unusual or special skill – it can be part of everyday life.


5. Because Australia’s track record is a global embarrassment

Ngukurr Language Centre

‘My Grandmother’s Lingo’ participant Angelina Joshua and a colleague work hard to keep their language of Marra alive at the Ngukurr Language Centre

How many Indigenous languages can you name? Linguist Greg Dickson tells SBS that he often asks this question of University students in class and says, “I might be lucky if someone knows one or two.”

“I think that’s a sign that things could definitely be improved.”

Despite being one of the most multicultural countries on earth, Australia is home to some of the world’s most endangered languages. With 90% of our Indigenous languages critically endangered, we’re notoriously becoming a graveyard of dying languages.

“Even though we are very multicultural, just by having English as the dominant language and the language of power in our society, you can get away with what linguists call the monolingual mindset,” says Dickson.

“There are not many [countries] that do a worse job! Australia has the worst track record of endangering languages.”

We have a lot of work to do, because unlike countries like New Zealand where there is one predominant Indigenous language, making it easier to be taught in schools and recognised nationally, Australia is home to hundreds of language groups across the nation.

One of those languages is Marra – now spoken fluently by only three remaining elders in the remote community of Ngukurr in North East Arnhem Land.

My Grandmother's Lingo

New SBS interactive My Grandmother’s Lingo now aims to give anyone the chance to speak Marra themselves. The unique storytelling experience features animations powered by the voice of the user.

Anyone with an internet connection can try their hand at Marra and then pin their location on a map to illustrate how far the language has spread. As Australians, it’s a way for us to build awareness of this important issue and start a national conversation.


6. Because it’s a symptom of something even more concerning

Angelina Joshua

Angelina Joshua of ‘My Grandmother’s Lingo’ (Photo by Elise Derwin for SBS)

Treating the symptom is important but we should also consider what has caused language loss in the first place.

Speakers abandon a language when it’s no longer beneficial to them. It may have led to discrimination and exclusion or it may have simply been unhelpful in seeking a good life and opportunities.

At the heart of the issue is the idea that some cultures have been subordinated to others.

As Suzanne Romine explains in her paper The Global Extinction of Languages and Its Consequences for Cultural Diversity, “The disappearance of a language and its related culture almost always forms part of a wider process of social, cultural and political displacement where national cultures and languages are in effect those of dominant ethnic groups.”

A world that discourages diversity, whether biological, cultural or linguistic, is probably not a very resilient one. Just as no one person has all the answers, no one culture has all the answers.


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Lauren Johnson

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