12 Mar What is your real mother tongue?
Over the course of time, we have lost our appreciation for words and for language. A decrease in the illiteracy rate has made the act of writing a common habit in lieu of an art.
The members of a community share facts, experiences and ideas through a language they all have in common. When reading, writing, talking on the phone or even interpreting a graph, all of a language’s verbal and non-verbal aspects embody the culture of a social group. What is more, language is not only used to convey experiences, but to create them as well. We can thus assert that a language expresses and symbolizes a cultural reality.
Today, there are 6,000 different languages in the world, whose diverse vocabulary, grammar and even sounds are infinite. Some languages have only 11 different sounds, while others have 118! This diversity demonstrates the plasticity of the human brain and its ability to communicate. Even so, much has now been lost in this regard, with specialists estimating that 50% of today’s languages will be extinct by the end of the century. In 2015, the Wall Street Journal published a controversial article stating that 90% of languages will disappear by 2115.
The first known signs of verbal communication appeared around 100,000 years ago. It was at the same time that human beings began making hunting tools and planting food. As our species evolved, the need for a “common” means of communication began to arise. It is believed that, before this advancement, communication was limited to small groups or even families. The understanding of what it means to be human and how cultures developed over time is largely rooted in language.
Ancient languages generally disappeared with the creation of new ones. Language specialists call this “linguistic equilibrium”. Such is the case with Latin, for example. Many people believe that Latin is a dead language, while in truth, Latin developed to give rise to new languages such as Portuguese and French.
However, this balance began to disappear 500 years ago, leaving black holes in the history of humankind. People began learning predominant languages – also known as metropolitan languages – with ensuing generations gradually losing contact with their ancestors’ mother tongue.
What happened (and keeps happening)?
A language becomes officially “dead” when its last native speaker dies, even when it has records or people who speak it as a second language. This phenomenon occurs for various reasons ranging from national disasters to economics.
- Globalization and urbanization
A speaker of a “minor” language may choose to teach later generations a language with a greater likelihood of giving them economic as well as social prosperity. This has frequently occurred in the United States, for example. Small settlements began to urbanize, with English becoming the main language over time. In other words, it started to become economically more cost-effective to speak English instead of one’s mother tongue. It is estimated that, prior to the arrival of Europeans in America, there were 1,000 more indigenous languages than there are today. The disappearance of languages was gradual, with populations initially becoming bilingual and then losing contact with their traditional language over time.
- Politics and discrimination
For many years, in various countries, policies were created to exterminate indigenous peoples. The main goal was to merge these cultures into the “main” culture. The best example of these policies were Canada’s residential schools. These academic establishments were created for the purpose of “killing the Indian in the child”. This “killing” was interpreted in the figurative sense of “doing away with the culture”, although many children ultimately died in the process. Policies of this sort have also been found in countries such as Australia, the United States and even in some European countries.
This phenomenon arises in the wake of the previous ones. The geographic displacement of people also affects the intellectual capabilities of individuals. With the passing of time, the search for a better quality of life elsewhere causes new generations to lose contact with their ancestors’ language.
- Natural disasters
Places in the world with greater linguistic diversity are also more vulnerable to natural disasters. India and Indonesia have more than 1,000 indigenous languages combined, and are often devastated by earthquakes, tsunamis and even storms. Linguistic losses after a natural disaster are commonly blurred, since the territory has often not been completely explored in this regard.
What is being done?
Various projects exist for the purpose of keeping languages and their associated cultures alive. 2019 has been called the International Year of Indigenous Language (IYIL2019) by UNESCO to alert the world and make people aware of the importance of beginning to take action.
Documenting a language from scratch is an extremely time-consuming process. Some choose to write while others choose to make recordings, but the idea is to document in every way so as to fully understand phonetics, grammar, diction and worldview.
- Marie Wilcox
Marie Wilcox is the last fluent speaker of Wukchumni. When she discovered this, she began to document everything she knew about the language, and taught it to her daughter and grandson. Over seven years she created a Wukchumni-English dictionary, and today is working on recording stories and tales in audio format. Together with her daughter, she also teaches her native tongue to other people in the village.
This is a success story in revitalizing a language; however, this unfortunately does not happen in the majority of cases. Saami, for example, is a language that was lost after the death of its last two native speakers while it was in the process of being documented.
Wikitongues is a global network of more than 1,000 volunteers. The organization’s mission is to ensure that everyone has the tools needed to pass their native language on to future generations.
Along with working directly with UNESCO during IYIL2019, it has other projects underway: recording a story in all of the world’s languages, and creating a survival kit for languages, with the tools needed to document them.
The Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL) has created a technology to preserve endangered languages. After collecting more than 40,000 hours of audio and video, researchers realized they would need more than 2 million hours to be able to analyse all of the material.
In partnership with Google, an artificial intelligence platform was developed called “TensorFlow”, which creates models automatically. This technology has already developed 13 languages to facilitate their teaching through games, classes and stories.
These are just three from among many examples of projects being developed to rejuvenate indigenous languages. UNESCO hopes that these partnerships will create a world where cultures can develop without being lost.
You can also do your part through donations, sharing UNESCO’s mission or even learning an indigenous language! Below are some websites where you can leave your contribution and learn more about this somewhat unknown world of languages.
Official IYIL2019 website: https://en.iyil2019.org/
Wikitongues website: https://wikitongues.org/
Also see the article “What dies with the disappearance of a language?”