In many parts of the world, languages are in danger of going extinct. It might be tempting to believe that English has become the lingua franca of global business and the Internet, but when languages die, the loss has repercussions far beyond simply the loss of a lexicon. Individuals lose out on the ability to contribute to the marketplace of ideas, businesses stand to lose a customer base, and an important connection to culture is lost.
Why Should We Care About Language Extinction?
UNESCO is the body that studies and compiles information on linguistic diversity. According to their data, there are 6,000 languages spoken on the planet and half of them are endangered. The group defines a lexicon as endangered when, “its speakers cease to use it, use it in fewer and fewer domains, use fewer of its registers and speaking styles, and/or stop passing it on to the next generation.” It is the last part that turns a language from endangered to extinct. Children are a vital part of carrying traditions into the future. When they are no longer learning the endangered language as their primary language, (and or when the last existing speaker of a language dies and there is no oral or written history of lexicon,) the language is considered extinct.
Colonization as a Cause of Language Loss
Many factors can contribute to the eradication of a language. One culprit of language extinction is colonization. When an empire rises, it brings with it its own culture and lexicon. In order to survive, indigenous people have to assimilate. In the old days, that meant abandoning the mother tongue entirely. In the modern day, it means people have to learn the language of the dominant culture.
Take the state of Hawaii for example: the South Pacific paradise was a sovereign nation with its own culture and its own language until the monarchy was overthrown in 1893. In the decades following, use of the Hawaiian language was expressly forbidden by law. By the 1980s, fewer than 50 people under the age of 18 in the America’s newest state spoke the language.
Can Languages Be Saved?
The short answer to that question is: yes, languages can be saved. With efforts from a diverse group of heritage advocates, the Hawaiian language was brought back from the brink of elimination and now more than 10,000 people speak the language. While that is not a majority, it is a significant number which reflects the fact that Hawaii’s mother tongue is no longer threatened. Additionally, the state has officially designated Hawaiian, along with English, as their official languages.
Much like the work done to rescue the Hawaiian language, similar efforts are taking place around the world to preserve other endangered languages. Some of those efforts are being championed by the use of social media.
Facebook has now added Corsican to its list of languages translated on the site. The head of Norway’s Sami Parliament spearheaded an effort to revive the native Sami language through Instagram and Twitter as well as Facebook. Employing the approach of mass engagement and utilizing technology is especially helpful in circumstances where an at-risk language exists only in an oral form and not in a written text. This method also allows for a solely oral language to be transcribed and thereby offering another path to keep the language alive.
It Takes a Village
Efforts to salvage endangered languages are truly about harnessing the power of people. Learning another language is not only healthy; it also helps create communities, strengthens bonds, and helps languages remain in circulation—thus extending their lifespan. From a business perspective, globalization is here to stay. The adage of “know your audience” now also means knowing their language. In that scenario, everyone wins.