Opinion | Endangered languages must be preserved

By Andrew Prozorovsky, Senior Columnist

For those who have struggled with a language barrier in a foreign country, the simpler idea of a universal language may seem enticing. The rate of language extinction correlates well with development markers like education access and road-building, so it may not seem like a bad thing that people are pursuing the same 20 languages in a world with over 7,000. 

But psychologists and anthropologists discover every day new ways in which languages not only represent the cultures in which they exist, but also the ways in which they demonstrate previously unknown capabilities of the human mind. Conversely, one can observe the ways that each language establishes the limits of one’s perception of the world.

In 1887, the auxiliary language Esperanto was created. Its appeal was that it was easy enough to learn that it could be made a formidable lingua franca — a common language between two people who do not share a native language. Today, there are likely less than two million speakers of Esperanto. So why has it struggled to achieve its goal?

One theory is that language and culture are foundational elements of one another. If one wanted to learn Esperanto, there are not many texts or movies to use to practice. There is not a history, culture or nation of people to provide a backbone for the language. There aren’t many native speakers, and there aren’t Esperanto-speaking countries that incentivize travelers to learn it. Language and culture are fundamentally interconnected.

Furthermore, languages reveal cultural priorities. 

Sanskrit famously has 96 words to describe “love,” compared to just one in English. Cultures that heavily value family generally reflect that in their language. Chinese has a unique word for generations of familial relations, whereas English speakers often have to describe the relationship beyond close family members. Cherokee lacks a word for “goodbye” and only has the expression “I will see you again.” Most English words related to war concepts come from French, reflecting France’s turbulent and war-stricken history. 

Some languages have more words for types of rain or clouds that reflect their climate. Some have words for berries that indicate whether they are safe to consume that reflect their diets.

Languages also divulge cultural attitudes. Germans are known for their practicality and the German language includes plenty of compound words and practical observations. The German word for lightbulb, “die Glühbirne,” literally means “glowing pear.” The elevator, “der Aufzug,” means “the up-train.” And then there are countless concepts that cannot be easily translated into English, like Japanese’s “komorebi” or German’s “Torschlusspanik.”

Distinguished scholar Lera Boroditsky has made a career discussing the extent to which language crafts one’s whole cognitive realm. In her Ted Talk, she discusses how the language one learns affects their ability to orient oneself, do math and conceptualize numbers, perceive time and color, associate gendered characteristics with objects and understand culpability. 

These aren’t simply fun facts, they all have real-world implications for phenomena like the sense of direction, sexism and eyewitness testimony.

The more society understands the diverse array of languages that exist, the more it begins to understand which norms aren’t innate but rather have been dictated by Western standards. Take, for example, the gender binary. Native Hawaiian and Tahitian have three genders to describe individuals, not two.

But while languages unveil unique ways of perceiving the world, there are also studies that indicate that there is something primal and universal about certain observations. Anthropologists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay conducted a study that showed that languages adopt color words into their vocabulary in a surprisingly similar pattern. Similarly, speakers of different languages more or less identify primary color hues in the same spots on a color spectrum.

There is also simply the argument that, like a dog’s nose or an octopus’ camouflage, language is the biologically unique demonstration of human intelligence. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t the world work to preserve what makes it uniquely human? It’s humanity’s duty.

According to Ethnologue, there are over 3,000 endangered languages in the world today. Most of them are endangered as their speakers abandon it in favor of a universal language.

The world has to work to preserve as many as possible. Each language represents a culture and a nation that deserves to have its heritage safeguarded. The history of a language teaches anthropologists much about a society’s diet, geographical origins, neighbors, values and folklore. When a language dies, many cultural practices and customs die with it. Empirically, behind each language is a unique style of thought that exhibits something greater about humanity.

There are plenty of things that can be done on the individual and government-level to help protect and raise awareness for these endangered languages. 

Use social media to promote indigenous languages. Enroll in language classes or donate to organizations that work to immortalize vulnerable languages. Governments can use policy to sponsor and publicize their endangered languages or coalesce national identity around these cultural staples. They can maintain language resources for endangered languages.

Duolingo has already added new courses for some endangered languages, such as Zulu, Maori and Haitian Creole.

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Ironically, these limits can help express the limitless capabilities of the brain. If the cultural and historical arguments fail to resonate, understand that there are compelling arguments regarding the advancement of psychology and neuroscience.

Lingua francas are helpful for allowing global cross-national communication, but dominant languages cannot be allowed to steamroll less prevalent ones. This mass extinction must be stopped before it is too late.

 

Andrew is a senior in LAS.

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