Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Language Extinction

We hear a lot about the extinction of species but we rarely speak about cultural extinction. I was today that every 14 days a language dissappears and that by the year 2100 there will only be more or less 3500 languages (half of what there is today) in the world. In Mexico, for example, out of the 250 languages that were being spoken before the Spaniards conquered the territory, only 62 prevail.

A lot of those languages are very specific and thus very hard to translate or to use in more universal contexts. An example of this is the word "chary" which in Todzhu (an endangered south Siberian language) means "2-year-old male castrated reindeer that can be used for riding." Imagine how simple the life of the people who live in this part of Siberia must be, that they have a word that expresses such a specific concept. Also, most probably these languages are spoken by very small communities. Maybe the reason why they get lost is that new generations need to learn the "official" language of the territory they are in to be able to communicate outside their community and that language becomes more predominant. If we go back and think we are loosing one of these languages every two weeks I can't imagine how much culture and history are being lost!

I also think about the people themselves and how terrible it must be to be forced to adopt a new language and give up a lot of their culture to be able to cope with their everchanging surroundings. It is already hard for people living in big cities to keep up with technological and social changes and to maintain traditions in this globalized world. Understanding those changes must already be so difficult for people in those communities, let alone adapting to them and accepting the fact that much of their culture will get lost.

So the question to ask here is how much more of these minority languages and their encompassed culture will actually dissappear in the future. What can be done to preserve them? National Geographic has a project called "Enduring Voices" whose goal is to document endangered languages and prevent language extinction. There is also a minority language song contest in Netherlands that has taken place for 8 years. For the rest of us (and I am talking about us immigrants) it is a matter of cultivating and maintaining our traditions even in our new home and sharing them with our kids so that they don't get lost.

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