Charlie Mungulda no longer has anyone to speak with in his native tongue. The native Australian is the only person alive on this planet that still speaks Amurdag—just one language of thousands around the world that is about to go extinct. From Siberia to Oklahoma, languages rich in history and tradition are quickly and quietly disappearing from the planet.
Currently there are only an estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world and one of them dies out about every two weeks, according to the linguistic experts who are struggling as many as they can. In fact, languages are currently even more endangered than plant and animal species. At least 20% of the world's languages are in imminent danger of becoming extinct as their last speakers die off, compared with about 18% of mammals, 8% of plants and 5% of birds.
Five “hotspots” where languages are most endangered were listed earlier this week in a briefing by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the National Geographic Society. Northern Australia, eastern Siberia, the U.S. Southwest, South America, including Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia, as well as the area including British Columbia, and the US N were mentioned in the report.
But does it matter if these languages disappear? In fact, some people believe one universal homogenous language is inevitable and should be welcomed. But losing languages means losing knowledge, points out K. David Harrison, assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.
"When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday."
But you don’t have to be a linguist to comprehend the gravity and importance of losing all the rich cultural ideas, songs, stories and beliefs intertwined with each unique language. But because almost half of the current languages have never been written down, if the last speaker of many of these dying languages vanished tomorrow, those languages—and all they represent—would be completely and irreversibly lost to mankind. There is no dictionary, no literature, no text of any kind to remind the world that they ever even existed.
Harrison and institute director Gregory D.S. Anderson have been working to analyze the top regions for disappearing languages. Anderson said languages become endangered when a community decides that its language is an impediment. The children may be first to do this, he explained, realizing that other more widely spoken languages are more economically useful, among other reasons.
The key to getting a language revitalized, he said, is supporting a new generation of native speakers. He said the institute worked with local communities and tries to help by developing teaching materials and by recording the endangered language.
Harrison said that the 83 most widely spoken languages account for about 80 percent of the world's population while the 3,500 smallest languages account for just 0.2 percent of the world's people. Languages are more endangered than plant and animal species, he said.
Here are the “hotspots” described in their briefing:
• Northern Australia — 153 languages. Australia holds some of the world's most endangered languages, partially because aboriginal groups were split up during conflicts with white settlers. Some of the smallest language communities are the three known speakers of Magati Ke, the three Yawuru speakers and the lone speaker of Amurdag.
• Central South America including Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia — 113 languages. The area has extremely high diversity, almost no documentation and several immediate threats. Small and socially unvalued indigenous languages are being erased by Spanish or more dominant indigenous languages in most of the region, and by Portuguese in Brazil.
• Northwest Pacific Plateau, including British Columbia in Canada and the states of Washington and Oregon in the U.S. — 54 languages. Every language in the American part of this hotspot is endangered or moribund, meaning the youngest speaker is over age 60. An extremely endangered language, with just one speaker, is Siletz Dee-ni, the last of 27 languages once spoken on the Siletz reservation in Oregon.
• Eastern Siberian Russia, China, Japan — 23 languages. Government policies in the region force speakers of minority languages to use the national and regional languages, as a result the some have only a few elderly speakers left.
• Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico — 40 languages. Oklahoma has one of the highest densities of indigenous languages in the United States. A moribund language of the area is Yuchi, which appears to be completely unrelated to any other language in the world. As of 2005, only five elderly members of the Yuchi tribe were fluent in their native tongue.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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