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It’s Time to Help Languages Survive

Dennis Jarvis/Flickr

Dennis Jarvis/Flickr–Margaret LaBillois: newly elected chief of the Micmac Indians on Eel River Bar, picture taken almost 50 years ago

Google predicts that, in 100 years time, almost half of the world’s languages will have died.

Google partnered with the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity in 2012 to found the Endangered Languages Project. It is a centralized database for sharing information on over 3,000 disappearing languages.

When a language disappears, it takes with it “not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages,” according to UNESCO.

Lingual Identity

Languages are identities, each with their own untranslatable concepts, rhythms and patterns of thinking. As National Geographic observes, “Different languages highlight the varieties of human experience.”

In Tuva, for example, the past is thought of as being ahead of oneself, and the future behind. Author Russ Rymer suggests that it makes sense if one considers that you can’t see what’s in the future, but what’s in the past is in front of your eyes in plain view.

Rymer also recounts Father Vijay D’Souza’s experience learning Aka. D’Souza moved from Southern to Northern India to found a school in a remote province where Aka is spoken. For him, learning Aka “alters your thinking, your worldview.”

The economic and former colonial powers of certain languages have meant that less “powerful” languages now have very few speakers, even though they also treasure a wealth of knowledge and experience. According to National Geographic, one language dies every fourteen days. That works out to half the world’s languages disappearing in the next century.

Efforts to Save a Language

The disappearance of a language is not inevitable–many of them can still be revived.

The Miami-Illinois Native American language, also known as Myaamia, was considered extinct, its last fluent speakers having died in the 1960s. However, the language was well preserved in written form. The Myaamia’s Endangered Languages page reports that Daryl Baldwin of the Miami tribe of Oklahoma taught himself the language from historical manuscripts.

Baldwin attained fluency and is now raising his children to speak the language. In addition, in 2013, Miami University and the Miami tribe set up the Myaamia Center, a research and conference center dedicated to the revitalization of the Myaamia language and culture.

On a smaller yet equally powerful scale, Marie Wilcox, the last living fluent speaker of Wukchumni, spent seven years putting together a dictionary for her language.

Wukchumni is the native language of the Yokuts tribe of central California. While Wilcox was at first unsure who the dictionary was for, other than herself, her tribe now uses it to teach weekly classes in Wukchumni.

Wilcox raised her daughter in English and spoke only with her grandparents in Wukchumni. The revival of the Wukchumni language has revitalized a sense of community and tradition, both in her family and in the tribe.

Take Action

Take a look at our language courses to connect on a deeper level with your own cultural roots and native tongue, or to discover someone else’s. There is no cultural and intellectual journey as rich as learning a language.

If you know or are interested in a very rare language, The Endangered Languages Project has put together an interactive map with information on every language in its database, which is free to explore. Start a project here, in your community, or even just in your family–and know that you have a world of support.