Language Diversity Index Tracks Global Loss of Mother Tongues
National Geographic, Posted on March 1, 2011
"For the past several years, we had been hearing anecdotal reports about endangered languages--how we're losing languages by the day, how we may lose 50-90 percent of languages before the end of the century. But nobody had any reliable quantitative data to corroborate these claims," says Luisa Maffi, co-founder and director of Terralingua, an international NGO devoted to sustaining the biocultural diversity of life through research, education, policy, and on-the-ground work.
"But now a new Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD), the first of its kind, shows quantitatively, for the first time, what's really happening with the world's languages," Maffi adds. "The ILD shows in quantitatively rigorous ways what the trends have been over the past 30 years in the numbers of mother-tongue speakers of the world's languages--and the news is not good: an overall decline of more than 20 percent in that period alone."
David Braun of National Geographic News Watch interviewed Luisa Maffi, David Harmon, and Jonathan Loh about the new Index of Linguistic Diversity.
Harmon, of the George Wright Society/Terralingua, and Loh, of the Zoological Society of London/Terralingua, are the co-authors of a paper, Index of Linguistic Diversity, published in the journal Language Documentation & Conservation. Volume 4 of 2010. Their work was underwritten by The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit which supports National Geographic News coverage of biocultural diversity issues.
Braun: What is language diversity, and why are we potentially on the brink of a mass extinction of languages?
Harmon: There are 7,000 languages, but there's more to diversity than just separate languages. There's diversity within languages and structures of languages, and all that.
The reason why we're coming up to the brink of a mass extinction of languages is simply that there are a lot of pressures in the world that are enticing or even forcing people to switch from generally smaller, more geographically restricted languages to larger languages, especially global languages like Mandarin Chinese, English, or Spanish, or even languages more regionally dominant than smaller languages.
So we have 7,000 languages, which is the consensus number of discrete languages that are out there. But most of the people who study endangerment of languages are predicting that there is a potential for a mass extinction of these languages within the 21st Century. By extinction they mean that the languages are no longer going to be spoken by people as mother tongues, their principal languages.
"There is a strong possibility that we'll lose languages that people are using as their main vehicle of expression, which they may regard as one of the linchpins of their self-identity."
Some of these languages might still be spoken after they are lost as mother tongues, in a restricted way, in ceremonies or in special usages like that. But in essence there is a strong possibility that we'll lose languages that people are using as their main vehicle of expression, which they may regard as one of the linchpins of their self-identity.
So all the pressures that are out there in terms of globalization, government policies that may favor certain official languages and actively or at least tacitly suppress smaller languages, economic pressures, all these things come together to put pressure on smaller languages. Therefore the diversity of languages is going to be compressed, from 7,000 separate languages to something much smaller than that.
But it is even more nuanced than that. There is also the factor of distribution of languages and how even that distribution is, and that is part of our conception of linguistic diversity. Most people talk about separate languages and they talk about extinctions. But one of the things that we are doing in this ILD is trying to move the conversation beyond those two factors, to try to get to a richer view of linguistic diversity.
Loh: I want to emphasize one thing here. When a language goes extinct, it does not necessarily mean that the ethnic group that speaks that language has gone extinct.
What often happens is that when a linguistic group is small, when the number of speakers may only be a few hundred or thousand, there is enormous pressure to shift from their native mother tongue to a more dominant language spoken in the country where they live, which could be Spanish or Chinese or Russian or Portuguese or Arabic, or whatever, because of the social and economic advantages of speaking that bigger language.
Photo: Jonathan Loh
When that process happens, perhaps the younger generation starts to become bilingual, and then the next generation has a weaker grasp of its mother tongue, and by the third generation they can no longer speak to or understand their grandparents and great-grandparents. So it can happen quite rapidly, the shift from one language to a larger, dominant language.
Maffi: I would add that in some cases the shift to a dominant language can very much be part of government policy, and it can happen from one generation to the next. That's what happened to native communities in North America, both Canada and the U.S., where the system of residential schools was put in place, and children were consciously taken from their families and communities and put in residential schools far away, where they were forbidden to speak their own language.
When they came home they were not communicating with their parents and grandparents in their own language, they spoke English. For some of them the pain and the shame were such that they didn't want to speak their own language anymore, because they were told it was primitive, and anyway it was associated with all their suffering.
So they didn't transmit their language to their children and grandchildren, and now we are faced with a situation in which many of these communities are beginning major efforts to re-acquire and re-affirm their languages as part of their identity.
So when we focus just on the idea of language extinction, that we are losing individual languages, to some extent we lose sight of the process of how this happens. Extinction is the end point of a long process, and the ILD helps us see that because it helps track the shift from the smaller languages to the larger languages, so it gives us a sense of that process.