Language extinction, and what that means for culture

Image of woman speaking, with letters coming out of her mouth

In December, the New York Times published a story about Amadeo García García, the last living speaker of Taushiro. He lives in the Amazon, and the article looked at how he came to be the only speaker left of his mother tongue. It’s a burden on his shoulders: without fully grasping the consequences until it was too late, he was the last hope for passing his language down to his children and allowing it to live at least one more generation. Unable to do that, he now lives out his last days with the realization that when his dies, so will his language.

UNESCO reports that in Europe alone, there are 640 languages currently in danger of extinction, with another 228 no longer spoken. UNESCO’s website has a searchable map that allows you to see the countries and regions where languages are range from vulnerable to extinct, and the numbers are staggering. Brazil alone has 190 listed, topped only by the United States with 191; Indonesia lists 143 languages, Papua New Guinea with 98, and 131 in Russia.

With the influence of English across the internet around the world, there’s been talk of languages dying out faster than ever before. The Guardian recently reported on the status of Icelandic, due in large part to the use of English online. Every language isn’t automatically supported online. The languages you can use the most often are the languages most widely spoken in the world: English, Chinese, Spanish. A professor at the University of Iceland spoke to The Guardian about this “digital minoritization,” how “young Icelanders in particular now spend such a large part of their lives in an almost entirely English digital world” and “are no longer getting the input they need to build a strong base in the grammar and vocabulary of their native tongue.”

What happens to culture when a language dies?

Cultural knowledge and identity are inextricably wound up in language. According to UNESCO, “Every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value systems, philosophy and particular cultural features. The extinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others.”

When a language belonging to people in the Amazon dies, so too does that people’s knowledge of the rainforest, how they discuss and interpret certain aspects of how to live in and with that environment, the uses for plants that may still be unknown to the rest of the world, and the words for smells and colors that other cultures and languages can’t distinguish. This isn’t exclusive to the Amazon: “Another study on ancestral sayings of Maori revealed new pertinent information concerning plant growth, soils and nutrients, ecological niches and ecological communities, as well as landscape processes.”

Knowledge of and connection to the world isn’t the only aspect of culture that language is intimately tied to: language forms a critical aspect of a person’s and a community’s identity as well. Dr. Pamela Serota discussed language loss and identity with The Atlantic: “Because language discloses cultural and historical meaning, the loss of language is a loss of that link to the past. Without a link to the past, people in a culture lose a sense of place, purpose and path; one must know where one came from to know where one is going. The loss of language undermines a people's sense of identity and belonging, which uproots the entire community in the end.” A person’s mother tongue is the first means they have of communicating with their family and their peers about the world around them, their heritage and belief systems. Though they may learn and speak other languages, the loss of their mother tongue is the loss of a personal connection to what and who came before them, and an inability to pass that heritage on to the next generation.

The loss of language, and therefore that cultural identity, can also lead to a deterioration in mental health within that community. A study published in 2007 in the journal Cognitive Development looked at the link between language knowledge and youth suicide rates among the Aboriginal population in British Columbia. The results showed that “youth suicide rates effectively dropped to zero in those few communities in which at least half the band members reported a conversational knowledge of their own ‘Native’ language.”

What can be done to prevent the loss of languages? UNESCO outlines a number of ways in which they are confronting the threat of language extinction:

  • Through education, by “support[ing] policies promoting multilingualism and especially mother tongue literacy; […] the language component of indigenous education; and rais[ing] awareness of the importance of language preservation in education.”
  • Through culture, by “collect[ing] data on endangered and indigenous languages, develop[ing] standardized tools and methodologies, and build[ing] capacities of governments and civil society (academic institutions and speaker communities).”
  • Through communication, by “support[ing] the use of local languages in the media and promotes multilingualism in cyberspace.
  • Through science, by assisting programs that “strengthen the role of local languages in the transmission of local and indigenous knowledge.”

In the meantime, browse the resources that UNESCO offers on endangered languages to learn more about which languages are most in danger of extinction, and let us know your thoughts over on our Facebook page.