Why it’s worth protecting linguistic diversity
Her death didn’t come as a surprise: When Marie Smith Jones passed away in January 2008 at the age of 89, she was blind and bore all the signs of a long and difficult life. Nevertheless, her passing marked the end of an era, and not only where her own life was concerned – Jones was the last native speaker of the Eyak language.
The Eyak are a Native American people indigenous to Alaska. Marie Smith Jones was not the last member of her tribe: 428 English-speaking Eyak people survived her. You may ask why we should mourn a language which most of us have never heard of before and which is clearly no longer needed.
From a pragmatic point of view, languages facilitate communication between living creatures, and the Eyak people seem to be no worse off. After all, they still communicate, just in English instead of Eyak. What’s more, languages have always been dynamic rather than static: they evolve with their speakers and the surrounding circumstances, and history shows that some cultures and languages disappear while new ones arise. So isn’t the death of the Eyak language a very normal process in our social, constantly evolving world?
International Mother Language Day
Today is International Mother Language Day, a day initiated by UNESCO to “promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism”. It is estimated that around 7,000 different languages are spoken across the globe, but UNESCO warns that by the end of the 21st century, half of these languages could die out if we don’t protect them. The accelerated decline in linguistic diversity observed over recent decades exceeds the historical norm. That’s why UNESCO celebrates this day.
So let’s ask ourselves again: Why should we make an effort to protect languages that are at risk of extinction?
We don’t know what we’re losing.
Such a warning might call to mind the loss of endangered animal and plant species – and the analogy is by no means far-fetched. Many scientists claim that as a result of climate change and the relentless increase in the world’s population, an increasing number of animals are being deprived of their habitat, which is a threat to their survival. The linguistic anthropologist K. David Harrison points out a similar development among languages. Half of the world’s citizens are native speakers of one of the world’s 50 most spoken languages; the other half account for the remaining 6,950 languages. These groups often contain just a few hundred or thousand speakers, and, as the case of Marie Smith Jones illustrates, their numbers are getting smaller.
Climate change, increasing urbanisation and globalisation mean that indigenous population groups are losing their habitat or voluntarily renouncing their native language in favour of another language that offers the chance for greater social and economic mobility. Marie Smith Jones’ life bears witness to both of these trends: the life of her tribe was traditionally determined by their living environment along the Copper River. However, pollution, epidemics and state interventions on their land led to a continual reduction in the Eyak population and made it increasingly difficult for the tribe to pursue their original way of life. Observing this development, Jones did not raise any of her nine children in the native Eyak language. She wanted them to attend good schools and have the chance to practice a good profession.
Linguistic adaptation for better prospects
Parents in indigenous groups, like all parents, want their children to be successful and thrive in society, according to the linguist Michael Gavin, who addressed the subject in a TED Talk. This often entails people giving up their own linguistic heritage and adapting to linguistically dominant structures.
In the same way that we don’t know what effects the extinction of endangered species might have on the world’s ecological balance, we also don’t know what knowledge and cultural treasures may disappear forever with the loss of linguistic diversity. After all, languages are far more than the sum of individual words. They express a way of living, they forge identity and they transmit knowledge.
Anyone who has mastered more than one language will be familiar with the problem: there are certain words and concepts that can’t be translated into another language. Following the death of Jones, it has become significantly harder to distinguish between demex’ch (a soft, rotten spot in ice) and demex’ch’lda’luw (a treacherous hole in pack ice). Many indigenous peoples lived and continue to live in close communion with their natural surroundings. It is highly likely, in the view of the anthropologist Harrison, that a large number of newly discovered species were by no means as unknown as first thought. Rather, it was us western scientists who lacked a name for them, because we don’t understand the language, and therefore do not have access to the knowledge of the people who share the habitat with these species.
How can we protect linguistic diversity?
According to UNESCO, choice of native language is a human right. The organisation recommends that, on a political level, educational institutions in particular should respect this right and ensure that high quality educational opportunities are available. Citizens can show interest in and respect for multilingualism, especially when it comes to speakers of less common languages.
Many of the languages at risk today only exist in oral form. This makes protecting and preserving them more difficult. To write them down or to create an audio dictionary is one approach, as was done in the case of the Eyak language in the years preceding Jones’ death. So, at least to some degree, it is now possible to learn Eyak as a foreign language.
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