The Loss of Languages

I came across this excellent article this morning, the Featured Story of the Natural History Magazine. It reminded me of the research I did for a previous post on Francophony.

The author, Sarah Grey Thomason, the William J. Gedney Collegiate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Michigan and former president of the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas, tells us that at least half of our planet’s 6,000 languages will be lost by the end of this century. Of course, if you speak one of the major languages, there’s no need to worry, these are probably to stay. Although I might say that one can never tell what the future has in store for us.

‘Losing a language’ may have different meanings. This article points to the fact that not all ‘dead’ languages are really dead, as in totally extinct. Latin is given as an example here. It is widely thought to be a dead language, because hardly anyone speaks it actively now. But it is not dead the way the language featured in the article will become extinct when the last person to speak it dies. Latin is very much alive, through the Romance languages descended from it.

But the most challenging implications are that if you are a member of a Native American tribe, the chances are that your children have been taught in English, and that they will speak it. So your language becomes extinct when you die.

This reminded me that within UNESCO, the question of linguistic diversity, including teaching and learning in native languages, is taken very seriously. In Africa alone, it is estimated that between 1,200 and 2,500 languages are competing, and surveys have found that very young children acquire better skills, and achieve better grades later, when they have been taught in their native languages. It is a policy issue for countries with a varied ethnic profile, where different languages are used. Yet, contrary to the view we might have from the North, it is essential for the future of literacy and development of those countries.

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