The Extinction of Languages

By Riham Osman

According to the National Geographic article “Vanishing Languages” by Russ Rymer, roughly seven billion people inhabit this Earth, together speaking about 7,000 various languages. Of those 7,000 languages, eighty-five of the largest languages are spoken by seventy-eight percent of the world’s population. The 3,500 smallest languages together share only 8.25 million speakers which hardly compares to the population of English, Mandarin, Spanish, or Arabic speakers. Large populations of people are abandoning the languages spoken in their communities for more widely spoken languages such as English, Mandarin, or Spanish. As languages go extinct, what do we stand to lose as a result of that? Languages are more than just ways for humans to communicate with one another. Languages are tied to the cultures and identities of people, and they hold an abundance of knowledge that we risk losing as we begin to abandon languages.

“Vanishing Languages” sheds light on the effects of the loss of languages, in particular languages spoken in tribes and small communities in the world. Rymer, argues that knowledge is lost when people abandon their languages for more widely spoken languages, and he asserts that every fourteen days a language disappears and is no longer spoken. He also indicates that linguists have argued that by the next century, nearly half of the world’s 7,000 languages will face extinction. Currently, more than one thousand languages are recognized as “critically or severely endangered” and are on the edge of extinction.

Colleges and universities across America are shrinking their language programs, which contributes to the irony behind the language epidemic. If universities are thought to be advocating for the spread of knowledge, why are they propelling backwards and decreasing the spread of knowledge in the world? Ironically, while people are trying to progress and modernize by abandoning their native tongues, they are, in a sense, also pushing backwards as they lose knowledge along with the languages spoken by generations before them.

A language holds an abundance of information and knowledge due to the interconnectedness between languages and cultures. One of the most interesting aspects of a language is the fact that some terms in certain languages cannot be exactly translated into another language because of the differences between cultures. For instance, when telling a story, the soul of a story often lies in the language that it is told in; therefore, if one were to attempt to tell a story in a different language, the story would lose a part of its essence.

Arguably, languages and identities are intertwined and the loss of a language could evidently mean the loss of an identity of a group of people. Rymer states that a Seri elder, Efraín Estrella Romero, from the people of Mexico told him, “if one child is raised speaking Cmiique Iitom and another speaking Spanish, they will be different people.” If a language defines who we are, perhaps our identities will be lost if our languages go extinct.

Although communities across the world are abandoning their native languages, interestingly, children are not the ones choosing to exchange their languages for more well known languages, but rather parents are the force encouraging children to learn languages that will better educate them and bring them success. Rymer argues against the common belief that abandoning one’s language for a more widely used language will bring success. He argues: “when small communities abandon their languages and switch to English or Spanish, there is a massive disruption in the transfer of traditional knowledge across generations—about medicinal plants, food cultivation, irrigation techniques, navigation systems, seasonal calendars.”

As languages go extinct, we lose a part of our connection to the people who spoke those languages, their cultures, their identities, and most importantly the knowledge that they had about the world. The shrinking of language programs in American universities will contribute to the process of languages going extinct and will contribute to an overall loss of knowledge.

Riham Osman is a senior at the University of Mary Washington majoring in international affairs and minoring in Middle Eastern studies. Mary Washington is home to the Kappa of Virginia chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

Photo: Taiwan aborigines, Bunun tribe, Formosa [ca. 1900]. Southern Taiwan is home to 300 ethnic Saaroa, only six of whom are native speakers.