Languages fascinate me. Not just the ones that are widely spoken like Spanish or Swahili, but more obscure ones that are spoken by few. Having worked in many indigenous communities, I have come across many of these, some on the verge of extinction. While my attempts at learning these languages, such as Mayan Chorti or Naso have been limited to just a few phrases of pleasantries, what was shocking to me was that children living amongst these languages spoke almost as few words as I did – opting to speak more widely spoken, universal languages – English, Spanish, French, etc. Is that really shocking though, or just a natural process? Does this modern world have room for the thousands of languages that exist, or does it make more sense to speak a few tongues and thus increase our reach, and perhaps our source of knowledge. Why save an endangered language?
I believe that a language is much more than a means of communication – it is a vector of thought, identity and culture. It is the vehicle through which we perceive the world, and with the loss of a language, it is not just words that are lost, but an entire way of thinking. There is information contained in languages that cannot be translated into another, and there is knowledge among speakers of these languages that are not known to all. Some researchers estimate that 80% of the Earth’s plants are unknown to Westerners, although many have names in indigenous languages, and are sometimes used in traditional medicine.
In a world of increasing ethnic violence, variations in thought and culture are often believed to be a source of conflict. However, I don’t believe that standardizing of culture and language guarantees peace and reciprocal understanding. Civil wars break out within countries that are monolingual, just as often as they are sparked by religious, ethnic or political differences. A world that speaks one language, is not necessarily a more peaceful one. Recognition of the inherent differences in our cultures and customs is what prevents conflict, while the failure in doing so can lead to violence and even war.
Studies have shown that successful education programs are those that incorporate teaching of the student’s mother tongue. While the vast majority of the worlds linguistic diversity is found in developing countries, they are also the ones most likely to be influenced by dominant, mainstream languages. This is due to myriad of different reasons, ranging from colonization and immigration, to the influence of mass media and flow of development aid. Teaching, and thus preserving native tongues, does not take way from a child’s capacity to learn another language, but actually facilitates the process of learning.
Forced integration movements and deliberate attempts of standardize cultures, has had adverse affects of populations from Brazil to Australia, Siberia to Canada. Language is an integral part of a society’s social fabric – take it out, and you encourage that void to be filled by undesirables such as alcoholism, domestic violence, depression and disintegration. The proliferation of tactics employed by many Latin American government to stifle indigenous languages, has perpetuated the humiliation and marginalization of indigenous peoples, and a subsequent loss of self-esteem and confidence towards the outside world.
There is intrinsic knowledge contained in our languages. Just as our works of art, monuments and achievements speak of our efforts, imagination and experience, so does our languages. Language is perhaps the most instrumental tool in the propagation of human history and knowledge. While we strive to curate and preserve our artistic expressions, so must we preserve the world’s languages. They are as much a part of World Heritage, as the Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu.
It is important to understand why languages are being endangered before we can make any substantial attempt at saving them. I think the driving force behind this is cultural change. Culture is a fluid concept, and cultural loss is an organic part of this process. But if culture and language are inextricable, are attempts to conserve a language destined to be doomed? If language is the vector of knowledge, human beings are the vector of languages. We must strive to at least conserve languages, not necessarily promote the widespread use of them. I think that that choice must be left for the speakers of that language, and their future generations. Over the past century, thousands of languages have become extinct not because people have stopped speaking them, but because they lacked to tools to conserve them.
For millennia, no one on this planet know how to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics – the knowledge contained in them just a mere mystery. This was until the Rosetta Stone was uncovered, giving us the tools to better appreciate the works of the ancient Egyptians. Today, the fate of thousands of languages hang on the balance. We have to sustain the knowledge on how to speak and write our languages, because without that our future generations will not be able to understand where we came from.