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World: Analysis From Washington -- Endangered Languages

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 22 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- One of the world's 6,000 languages is now dying out every two weeks, a rate that will reduce the number of languages spoken around the world by half over the next century and threaten both the diversity and the vitality of humankind.

That disturbing pattern has prompted David Crystal, a professor of linguistics at the University of Wales at Bangor, to call for the acceptance of the term "endangered language" and for the adoption of policies designed to slow the current dying out of such languages.

Crystal reports that 96 percent of the world's languages are spoken by only 4 percent of its people. According to recent research, there are now 51 languages with only one speaker left; 500 languages with fewer than 100 speakers; and 1500 with fewer than 1,000 speakers. And when the last speakers of these languages die, these languages die with them.

But it is not only micro-languages like these which are in trouble, Crystal argues. Some 5,000 of the approximately 6,000 languages in the world are spoken by fewer than 100,000 people each. And speakers of these languages face a variety of pressures to give up their native tongues and use languages belonging to larger communities.

Among the forces working against these smaller-language communities are natural disasters, state-sponsored genocide, or language planning, and cultural assimilation promoted by social change. As Crystal notes, colonialism spread several large European languages, and urbanization forced many smaller groups to learn a new lingua franca.

Because this process has seemed so natural and inevitable and because many of the speakers of the smallest languages have escaped ghettoization by learning one spoken by more people, many analysts and politicians have denied that the death of these languages is not a tragedy.

Many observers have argued, Crystal says, that "it is simply a symptom of more people striving to improve their lives by joining the modern world. So long as a few hundred or even a couple of thousand languages survive, that is sufficient."

But Crystal argues that such a situation is not sufficient and that even speakers of the largest languages should be concerned. First of all, he says, the death of languages "reduces the diversity of our planet" and that this "increasing uniformity holds dangers for the long-term survival of a species."

Drawing on the generally recognized principle that "the strongest eco-systems are those which are most diverse," Crystal argues that linguistic diversity plays the same role in the life of societies.

Sometimes, he says, obscure languages provide immediately practical contributions, such as access to folk medicines used by indigenous populations. Sometimes, it is intellectual, either by providing new literary forms or by allowing scholars to trace the history or linguistic heritage of the human race.

But most important, the continued survival of languages spoken by small numbers of people may actually contribute to tolerance both within countries and among them. "A monolingual world would not bring peace," Crystal says. Indeed, most of the big "trouble spots" in the world have been in monolingual countries.

Respect for languages, the Welsh professor continues, promotes respect for the people who speak them. And that in turn promotes the foundation for a free society and a more peaceful world.

According to Crystal, ever more people around the world accept his argument, but many despair that there is anything that can be done about the decline in the number of small languages. Such an attitude, he argues, often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In fact, there are many things that can be done to save languages spoken by only a few people and the linguistic richness they provide. Unfortunately, the cost of doing so is not small -- an estimated $100,000 a year per language to hire linguists, publish grammars and dictionaries, and prepare school texts.

One group that has taken the lead in trying to raise money for this task is the Foundation for Endangered Languages. Started in 1995, the FEL has had little success in raising money, but its publications and its web site -- at -- has certainly raised the consciousness of many people around the world.

For some of the languages spoken by only one or a few dozen people, even this effort has probably come too late; but for those spoken by several thousand or more -- and there are more than 2,500 such tongues -- a new wave of attention could make all the difference not only for these language but for the human species as a whole.