Linguists discuss the steady extinction of world languages

Linguists Dr. Gregory D.S. Anderson, PhD., founder and director of Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages (right), and Dr. K. David Harrison PhD., vice president of Living Tongues (left). Photo Credit: Alexandra Riggle / Daily Sundial

More than half of the world’s languages are spoken by 2 percent of the population, according to a presentation given by linguists Gregory D.S. Anderson and K. David Harrison Tuesday night in a packed room at the Oviatt Library.

The two have traveled the world, from Siberia to Bolivia to Papua New Guinea to document the world’s most threatened languages, some of which have only a handful of remaining speakers.

“One language every two weeks goes extinct,” said Harrison, the vice president and director of research of Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a non-profit organization, and a National Geographic Society fellow. “Of the world’s 7,000 languages, half are endangered.”

The reasons for this include globalization, shame associated with speaking an indigenous language, and disinterest in learning native tongues among youth, said Harrison

Harrison told the story of a Siberian Chulym man who, after inventing the first ever written form of his language, was quickly ridiculed by his peers for trying to preserve the obsolete tongue rather than embracing Russian as his sole language.

“It’s a tragedy that languages like English and French have become dominant at the expense of the lesser known languages,” said linguistics student Brittany Williams, who received her undergraduate degree in linguistics and English from the University of Minnesota.

Although technology has had a major influence on the extinction of languages, it has also had positive effects, Harrison said. He played a clip of a Koro man (India) singing, pointing out how digital technology will preserve this display of song in a way never before possible.

Harrison also spoke of villagers who wanted their language on the Web, even though they had never seen the Internet.

Despite the positive role technology could play in helping preserve languages, many may die before they are ever recorded, because languages become invisible as they become obsolete, said Harrison.

“The younger generations are not learning the languages,” said Debbi Mercado, president of CSUN’s linguistic club. “When we lose languages we lose culture—unique ways of knowing about the world, unique ways of knowing about the environment.”

Language hotspots are geographical regions that have a high diversity of languages, high levels of language endangerment, and low levels of scientific documentation, said Harrison who cited Bolivia as one such hotspot, with 37 languages.

In addition to the inherent value of language to history and culture, Harrison pointed out the advantages of little known languages to the modern world.

“There is a direct connection between environmental biodiversity and language diversity. ”Knowledge of medicinal uses are preserved in languages, Harrison said. When languages die, so does this knowledge. About 80 percent of the world’s languages are completely undocumented.”

Dr. Anderson, the founder and director of Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, focused primarily on the shift of languages to Hindi in the state of Arunachal Pradesh (Northeastern India), especially the Koro-Aka language.

There are over 100 languages spoken in this state alone, which makes this area especially urgent to study, he said.

He also played many audio recordings of different lingual dialects from the “talking dictionary” created by the Living Tongues Institute.

Anderson and Harrison made a clear case for the need to preserve the world’s rich diversity of languages while fully engaging their audience.

Linguistics graduate student Megan Goetz said she enjoyed the presentation. At a young age she realized her knack for learning languages and of their historical and cultural importance.

I want to preserve the history of language,” she said.

One of Mercado’s aims is to dispel the myth that linguistic experts speak many different languages, which is not always the case, she said.

“Linguistics is about the human capacity for language. It’s about how languages are different and unique. It’s a science—about understanding the human mind,” Mercado said.