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?
Language is a beautiful thing. The exciting flow of espanol, the beauty of french, the hard sound of german, the elegance of italian, the omnipresence of english. . . but wait those are all European languages, what is so great about them? This is a question that crosses my mind when I think of my dreams to live and work in Africa. I need to know English (got that down) to communicate in former British colonies. For example the national language of Uganda is English, but there are over 50 local languages. I will need to know French, which I am currently taking, to communicate in most West African, former French colonies, and Portuguese and German for some areas. I can’t say that I am too thrilled by that except that I love to learn languages. This year at University I am taking my first year of French and my second year of Swahili.
I won’t even begin to delve into the extremely impactful consequences of colonization, but I will say that I hope if you plan to travel for an extended period in Africa that you learn an African language. Before I graduate and move on from my undergraduate studies I plan on knowing Swahili, Arabic, French, some Hausa and some Zulu. I am prepared to be able to immerse myself into the culture of the people who I will meet and to communicate with those people in their native tongue.
The other day in my French class, the student from Zambia was having trouble pronouncing the difficult french words where you don’t pronounce half the word and the teacher was giving her quite a hard time about it. It is my first year taking French as well and I can understand the difficulty, but our teacher seemed to be overly harsh. She is a native French-speaker and I assume quite picky about how her language is articulated. The first thing that flashed to mt mind was the colonization of Africa and the colonizers forcing their language on the native-African people. Zambia was not colonized by the French, but the image is no less disturbing. How can someone even come to think that they have the greater knowledge on how to live and work than another? How can one person believe that they have the claim to walk all over someone else because they are not from the same area or background? This I don’t know, but it happens still today. Don’t be that person. Learn a greeting in a new language today!