death by modernization

According to National Geographic, “Every 14 days a language dies. By the year 2100, over half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth — many of them never yet recorded — will likely disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and how the human brain works.”

It has always been my opinion that language is free and language is fluid, but those two conditions cannot be met if a language dies. But why are languages dying? Both a difficult and nearly obvious answer exists. Earth is slowly developing into a single civilization. Traditional societies and languages are dying; disappearing and waves of rapid modernization aid in the erosion of tradition. The answer cannot be left at just that however, because there are many reasons, effects, and causes intertwined in the death of a language.

The most common ’cause of death’ comes from globalization – colonization and the growth capitalism. Dominant languages forced on populations by colonization or global capitalism leave the traditional language to wither in the dust. Children then learn the dominant language and miss the traditions and histories of their traditional people since language is a huge factor in history and tradition. As with the growth of global capitalism, the rate of death for smaller languages is increasing rapidly.

There are programs working to document and revitalize dying languages. This past year my swahili professor, Deo Ngonyani, traveled to northern Malawi to learn and document a disappearing language. He has previously documented two other languages, but these were not in danger of dying out. He was given a grant for a few years study of the language and culture of the traditional people associated with the language. There is also an organization called Living Tongues, which is associated with National Geographic Enduring Languages program. Living Tongues works with communities to document and preserve languages in danger of dying out. They enter communities and train the people to document their own language. Intellectual property rights of the community is the primary concern of Living Tongues. The communities grant Living Tongues permission to document and disseminate the research they gain from the endangered communities. Living Tongues has said that extinction of traditional and ancestral languages is one of the greatest socio-cultural threats of the 21st Century.

Dominant languages become dominant by way of oppressive structures. It is difficult to say that this would not have happened – that civilizations would have developed differently, but we cannot try to rewrite the past. With booming technology, traditional societies are becoming whitewashed at the expense of political and economic gain. In the course of this boom entire histories and cultures of people are effectively erased. Can you imagine being erased from the face of the earth?

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