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  • Writer's picturePallavi Nair

Many Mother Tongues are Dying & We have To Save Them

Ever heard of dying or endangered languages? We usually associate the word “endangered” with animals or plant species that are becoming extinct. But we never consider how languages spoken around the world are becoming extinct or have already vanished.

So what are endangered languages?

Endangered languages are languages that are likely to become extinct soon. These languages are less used or are being replaced by other languages that are more widely used in the region or nation, such as English in the U.S. or Spanish in Mexico. If nothing is done to save these indigenous languages, they will become extinct within the next century.

UNESCO says any languages spoken by less than 10,000 people are potentially endangered.


According to the language activist, “When humanity loses a language, we also lose the potential for greater diversity in art, music, literature, and oral traditions.” Between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

Why are these languages becoming extinct?

It's because humans are censoring themselves by becoming global and forgetting their roots.

The way we speak has an enormous effect on our identities. Different accents, dialects, and languages allow humans to express more ideas and concepts with the world, which might not be possible to explain in other languages.

On the 21st of February, the world celebrated International Mother Language Day, which is dedicated to promoting language inclusion. This day is celebrated to remind the people to not forget their mother tongue.

But what is a mother tongue?



This is a picture of a mom holding her son. The mom is wearing a hijab and a flowered top, and her son is wearing a checkered shirt.
Mother tongues are worth preserving.



A “Mother Tongue” is a native language or the language of our ethnic roots.

More than 6,000 languages around the world are on the verge of becoming extinct. The native speakers are either forgetting them or not continuing to speak them because of migration, urbanization, and various other factors. And if the current rate remains the same, then half of the world’s languages will be wiped out by the end of this century.

Many languages are no longer being learned by new generations of children or new adult speakers. These languages will become extinct when the last speaker dies. Endangered languages have less than 1000 speakers, all of whom keep the languages alive. Other languages survive in a single village. Dozens of languages today have only one native speaker still living, and that person's death will mean the extinction of the language. It will no longer be spoken or known by anyone.

So why are people forgetting or refusing to speak their mother tongue?

The answer to this is globalization, colonization, and migration. Also, factors like climate change and urbanization forced diverse rural and coastal indigenous communities to either migrate or learn to absorb new communities and languages.

Earlier mother tongues were synonymous with the home language, but today is not the case with most people. It is due to globalization that people marry people with different mother tongues. Also, many people are migrating from one country to another and end up learning and speaking the English language, which is considered a global language. Those migrants try to teach their children the mother tongue they speak, but because of the country or region they reside in, it becomes a struggle for the parents to teach their children their native language. As a result, they end up speaking in English or the language spoken in the region. Some even decide not to teach their children their heritage language, perceiving it as a potential hindrance to their success in life.


This is a picture of a mom and daughter sitting on a marble floor, reading a book together. Both are wearing hijabs.
Parents are sometimes hesitant to teach their childrens' mother tongues.

There is no doubt that English has become the common language around the world. For example, an estimate says that 12-30 % of Indians speak English to some extent. Even parents in India prefer sending their children to English medium schools to learn all the subjects in the English language and become global.


But science says a mother language is essential for a child's development, which can lead to better outcomes in the future.


According to the UNESCO (United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization) document “Enhancing learning of children from diverse language backgrounds,” the research shows that children’s ability to grasp an additional language does not suffer when their mother tongue is the primary language of instruction throughout primary school.


Diversity of languages brings immeasurable cultural richness to the world, but the number of regular speakers of the less-common languages is in steep decline. Many linguists estimate that the diversity of languages was at its peak in 8000 BC when as many as 20,000 languages were spoken. Each had a population of 5-10 million and an average community of 500-1,000 people. But today, less than half of that number remains.


How did some ancient languages die?

Some ancient languages died due to outright genocide. For example, when European invaders wiped out the Tasmanians, various unknown languages died as well.

However, some languages also become extinct when a community finds itself weak and integrates with other large or powerful communities. Sometimes, the people learn the outsiders' language in addition to their own. For example, in Greenland (a territory of Denmark) the Kalaallisut language is learned alongside Danish. But many communities have felt the pressure to give up their native language along with their ethnic and cultural identity. For example, ethnic Kurds in Turkey are forbidden by the law to print or formally teach their language. Similarly, younger Native American speakers were punished for speaking their native language at boarding schools.

Greek and Latin were considered dead long ago because there were no speakers left and were abruptly replaced by other languages. Ancient Greek slowly evolved into modern Greek, and Latin slowly evolved into modern Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian, and other languages. In the same way, Modern English is evolved from the Middle English of Chaucer's day, which is no longer spoken.

Mother’s tongue is key to our development


Let's talk about the languages in the world:


  • The world today has around 7,000 living languages

  • Around 570 languages have died since 1950

  • More than 1,000 languages will be dead or dying by the end of the century.

  • UNESCO lists a total of 577 languages as critically endangered

According to one count, 6,703 separate languages were spoken in the world in 1996. Of these; 1,000 were spoken in the American continents; 2,011 in Africa; 225 in Europe; and 1,320 in the Pacific, including Australia. There are roughly 2,300 spoken languages in Asia alone, and 38% of them are at risk. A century from now, however, many of these languages may be extinct. Some linguists believe the number may decrease by half. Some say the total could fall to mere hundreds as most of the world's languages - most of which are spoken by a few thousand people or less - give way to languages like English, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Indonesian, Arabic, Swahili, and Hindi.

According to the United Nations, this phenomenon is due to poverty, migration, job loss, and syntax. Difficult languages have a lower survival rate.


This is a picture of words in different foreign languages. All of the words are in different languages, including English, French, Italian, and Hawaiian.
Language diversity is rapidly decreasing.

The other reason for dying languages is language politics. For example, in India, 44% of people speak Hindi, so some say Hindi should be the national language of India. But since India has 22 official languages, there is no national language in the country. Some believe that a country doesn't need a national language since unity doesn't mean uniformity, and India's unity lies in its diversity. And the idea of one nation, one language kills that diversity and mother languages.

Social Media Impact


Another factor affecting endangered languages is social media. Only some spoken languages are used in social media, and many other languages are not.


This is a picture of a smartphone with the logos for Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter on the screen. The phone is sitting on a blank background.
Social media platforms only use some languages.

The vulnerable languages are ones where children speak the language but are restricted to a specific domain, like their homes or family functions. If we talk about India, the Human Resource Development Department said that 42 Indian languages are critically endangered, meaning that the youngest speakers are grandparents.


In Indonesia, there are 707 languages, half of which are dying. In Malaysia, around 80% of its 137 languages are dying. Languages of small indigenous tribal communities are endangered because they are often ignored and are never used in education or public life. Four in ten indigenous languages spoken today are in danger of disappearing.


Even in North America, only 194 languages remain, out of which:

  • 33 are spoken by both adults and children,

  • 34 languages are spoken only by adults and very few children,

  • 73 are spoken only by adults over 50,

  • 49 are spoken by very few people who are over 70, and

  • 5 languages are already extinct.


The 33 languages of the first group might remain safe, but as their community lives near other English-speaking communities, their children might end up speaking English. Hence many North American groups are pressured to give up their mother tongue and use English instead.


Society often pressures the younger generation to abandon their ways of life. Things like television, social media, and movies invite them to the glamorous and commercialized world that does not promote native lifestyles and traditions.


Every two weeks, one indigenous language vanishes.


China has 293 languages, 53% of which are in danger of extinction.


In Ireland, there are over 40,000 estimated native speakers of Irish Gaelic. It is spoken in several communities in Ireland (called Gaeltachts [Pro. “Gayle-techt”]) where Irish is still spoken as the primary language. This language is now classified as vulnerable.


Krimchak (pro. “Krya-m-chak”)is also known as Judeo-Crimean Tatar and is spoken by the people of Crimea, a peninsula of Ukraine. It had an estimated 200 speakers alive when the research was conducted in 2007.


Nsyilxcən (Syilx), also known as Okanagan-Colville, spoken in British Columbia, Canada, is one of the hundreds of Native American languages that are considered endangered. It is estimated that only about 150 native speakers of this language remain.


Also, language becomes endangered as their population resides in isolated islands. Rapa Nui, a territory of Chile, had 3,390 native speakers left as of 2000, and Spanish is gradually becoming a more dominant language.

  • Eyak—This language was still actively spoken in Alaska until 2008.

  • Yana—This was spoken by the Yahi people of north-central California until 1916.

  • Tunica—Was spoken by the Native American Tunica tribe across Louisiana until the 1930s.

  • Tillamook—Was spoken by an Oregon-based tribe of the same name until the 1970s.

  • Susquehannock—Was an old Iroquois language from the 1640s.

  • Jersey Dutch—A variation of the Dutch language spoken in the New Jersey counties until the early twentieth century.

  • Eastern Abnaki—The language of the Penobscot tribe in Maine until the 1990s.

  • Eastern Atakapa—Only 287 words were ever written down. This language was primarily spoken around Franklin, Louisiana, in the 1800s.

  • Siuslaw—A well-preserved language of the Oregon Pacific Coast region, although no one has spoken it frequently since the 1970s.

  • Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language—Spoken by the deaf population of Chilmark, Martha’s Vineyard. The last deaf person fluent in this language died in 1952, and no written records exist.


Why should people care?

When a language dies, we lose more than just a medium of conversation. We lose knowledge, experience, and crucial information about plants and animals and their usage. Science and culture’s progress also depends on the information in those languages, which should be passed on to the next generation.


We also lose a unique worldview. For example, indigenous languages like Cherokee convey messages differently; it has no word for goodbye. Rather, they use, “I will see you again.” Likewise, there is no word or phrase for “I am sorry.” They have various special expressions for words like mouth-watering, cheek-pinching, delightful experience when seeing an adorable baby or kitten i.e. cute (pro. “oo-Kah-huh-sdee”). Such expressions convey a culture’s way of interpreting human behavior and emotion that’s not conveyed in the same way as in the English language. Without language, the culture will stumble or vanish.


Other reasons to save mother tongues:


  • It advances inclusion.

  • Promoting mother languages will help us reach sustainable development goals by

  • ensuring that no one is left behind.

  • It saves dying literature.

  • It saves family heritage.


This is a speech bubble made up of words in foreign languages.
You can help protect mother languages from extinction.

Image from GDJ via pixabay.com.


So what are we/countries doing to save mother languages?

Parents living in any country should talk to their children in their mother languages. Read stories and rhymes to children in their mother languages. Introduce native language songs to them.


Even teachers can help to bypass a linguistically appropriate curriculum, especially in early childhood education. In 1999, many countries adopted a resolution that they agreed to use at least three languages in education. This is why in multiple countries, it is compulsory to learn regional, national, and international languages in school. But in practice, the regional languages are reduced to third languages and are given less than 60-90 minutes per week. These lessons are often stopped when the child is in higher grades because then the student can concentrate on more important languages. 40% of the people do not have access to education in the languages they speak or understand. As a result, indigenous groups avoid schools, and parents shy away from participating in school activities. It hampers the entire process of education.


Many researchers and linguist activists are taking extra efforts to revive and restore the languages, but the dominant languages such as English and Spanish are still acquiring hundreds of thousands of new speakers. To salvage any indigenous language, the major effort should come from the native speakers. People should take pride in their language and culture which drives them to preserve it.

 

If you like to learn more about languages and related topics, keep following the ReDefiners World Language blog. ReDefiners World Language is an online platform for kids and adults where they can learn languages like English, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin. Students get the opportunity to learn the languages and learn about the language’s cultures and influences. For more information about the classes, please visit www.redefinerswl.com or email us at info@redefinerswl.org.


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