For most of us, the language we speak is like the air we breathe. But what happens when we wake up and find that our air is going extinct?
According to Oregon’s Living Tongues Institute, one of the world’s languages dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will disappear, as young people abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish.
Researchers estimate that over the last 500 years, half of the world's languages, from Etruscan to Tasmanian, have vanished. So what do we lose when a language goes silent?
When you mess with a person’s language, you mess with their heritage, their culture, and their affinity with their ancestors. Changing language somehow invalidates all of the work of the past, disgracing the culture of their forefathers.
For this reason I would like to propose the creation of a Global Language Archive, similar, in some respects, to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway which has archived 1.5 million distinct seed samples of agricultural crops from around the world.
Different than some of the online efforts to archive languages that tend to lose much of the dimensionality of culture, I’d like you to think of the Global Language Archive as the “Louvre of Languages” where culture and language collide in a way that all can experience. Let me explain.
Language as a Source of Conflict
When the United States was founded, only 40 percent of the people living within its boundaries spoke English as their first language. Today that number is 87%.
Over the years, language has become a hotly debated issue, not only in the U.S., but also in countries around the world.
Most observers tend to explain today’s global political conflicts as stemming from racial, ethnic, religious, or territorial disputes. We rarely see language attributed as a direct and fundamental cause. But that’s not always true.
As an example, in 1989, Slobodan Milosevic ordered Albanians to speak Serbian. They refused. This became one of the primary causes of the war that followed.
When looking at past conflicts, it’s important to look at language as the source of tension: it is often more tangible than race or religion. For example, when you look at a person it can be very difficult to tell what race or ethnicity group they belong to. However, once they speak, much of the confusion disappears.
Over the coming years, the number of languages spoken around the world will decline sharply. At the same time, the more vulnerable a group feels about their language, the greater their devotion to keeping it. As one of the most important elements of a culture’s identity, language can also become incendiary. A group’s language can feel essential to its very existence.
Living Tongue’s map of endangered languages
From Bolivia to Malaysia, hundreds of languages around the world are teetering on the brink of extinction—some being spoken only by a single person, according to a new study.
Of the 50 native languages remaining in California, none are being actively taught to schoolchildren today.
With only 5% of the world still speaking 6,500 of today’s “long tail” languages, we are on the verge of losing a significant piece of humanity.
Currently, more than 500 languages are spoken by fewer than ten people.
The pace of life is quickening. As people’s lives become busier, they have less time to pay attention to things that were important to their ancestors. The new language wars will be an inter-generational battle between the younger generations and their parents and grandparents.
A few notable efforts are already underway.
- Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has a mission to promote the documentation, maintenance, preservation, and revitalization of endangered languages worldwide through linguist-aided, community-driven multimedia language documentation projects. Through proactive efforts, the Institute arranges expeditions to find “last speakers” of endangered languages worldwide and archive pieces of their culture through books, stories, and videos for use by future generations.
- Talking Dictionary - Living Tongues Institute is also producing a series of Online Talking Dictionaries for a range of languages. Here are some examples.
- The Rosetta Project is a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to develop a contemporary version of the historic Rosetta Stone for the next 10,000 years. This project is run by the Long Now Foundation. Their goal is create a broad online survey and near-permanent physical archive of 1,500 of the approximately 7,000 human languages.
- Multilingual Manchester - A University of Manchester archive set up in 2010 to document, protect and support the languages spoken in one of Europe's most diverse cities, is now the world's largest. The web-based Multilingual Manchester documents the city's diverse linguistic tradition of over 100 languages.
The Global Language Archive - The “Louvre of Languages”
Creating a physical place that represents a focal point for language preservation brings with it tremendous opportunity. Unlike today’s cultural museums that capture physical fragments of history, the Global Language Archive will have a mission to preserve the communications, stories, and dreams of our ancestors.
Online efforts only go so far. By adding physical dimensions, human contact, audio stories, and peripheral experiences, we breathe life into these otherwise single-dimensional languages.
As “last speakers” begin to dwindle, the final-person-responsibility brings with it tremendous stress and anxiety. The loss of a language means the loss of birthright, heritage, and customs. It somehow breaks the connection with their ancestors and invalidates all of the accomplishments of the past, dishonoring the culture of their families.
But much of this stress can be diffused by taking these speakers through a formal preservation process that transforms them from “crazy person clinging to the past” to “cultural expert with a deep understanding of their ancestors.”
Curators of languages are different than curators of artifacts. Languages are tools of expression with deep emotional ties. Done correctly, the Global Language Archive will attract massive crowds from around the world. It will be a one-of-a-kind facility serving as a Mecca for linguistic scientists and cultural researchers around the globe.
In this context, language itself becomes a cultural taxonomy, and with upwards of 7,000 languages left to preserve, it has the potential for becoming the largest museum in the world with associated universities, hotels, culture-inspired retail centers, and much more.
Ironically, the creation of a Global Language Archive will speed the reduction of spoken languages. Once the onus of responsibility has been removed from last speakers to keep their culture alive, they will be more likely to let their children decide their own career path.
Having fewer languages creates societal efficiencies on many levels – less confusion, reduced standards, and fewer decision points within most business structures.
From a nation-to-nation relationship standpoint, it will be a great diffuser of cultural tensions.
With English becoming the de facto international language standard of science, technology, and the Internet, it will be in the best interest of English-speaking countries to fund the Global Language Archive in a big way. For them it will create an unprecedented competitive advantage for business and industry.
My goal in writing this was to help readers understand how this looming language crisis could be transitioned into a significant opportunity. But I tend to look at the world through an overly optimistic lens, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything