Preserving and Reviving Endangered Minority Languages
Savings endangered languages isn’t easy. Linguists, scholars, entrepreneurs and even the people who speak them face numerous obstacles as they try to revive endangered minority languages. In this article, I'd like to share with you my experience preserving and reviving endangered languages.
Why Do Languages Become Endangered?
There are numerous reasons a language might become endangered. Typically, it’s a result of a language with a smaller population of speakers being located near a mainstream language. This proximity encourages speakers of the minority the language to prioritize learning the majority language. And there can be numerous benefits to this.
Learning to speak the dominant language can open the doors to economic opportunities, a better chance to integrate into the growing, larger culture, and a way to avoid persecution from those who speak the majority language. The dominant language tends to be the language used in schools, for commerce, in media, and in art. And the more the minority and majority cultures intertwine, the more the minority language often gets left out.
There can be other, more severe and active efforts to push the smaller languages out. Government, religion, cultural movements, and even schools have had a track record for suppressing or even wiping out minority languages. From full-on language genocide to more subtle movements, there is a historical trend in thought around the idea that two different languages cannot live in harmony, side by side.
Still, the main cause of languages going endangered tends to be migration. As people move to major cities for better opportunities, they often leave their languages behind after a generation or two.
What Is an Endangered Language?
An endangered language is not a dead language. A dead language is a version of a language that is no longer spoken. Latin, for instance, is dead. But it morphed through the years and eventually became the romance languages. Endangered languages are at risk of going extinct. They’re used by fewer and fewer people every day. And in some cases, only have 1 speaker left.
What Is an Extinct Language?
If a language remains endangered for long enough, its population of speakers will dwindle until either the language is no longer the first language children learn in their homes or no one speaks it anymore. Some of these languages are on the brink as they only have 1 speaker remaining. When that person dies, they take that language with them.
Overcoming Obstacles: How to Preserve Endangered Languages
Even if a language goes extinct, there’s a chance to save it, provided there’s enough documentation on the language. Languages that have died in the past several decades have even seen revitalization efforts that brought the language back to life dramatically. Hebrew and Cornish are two such examples. These languages were extinct until revitalization efforts catapulted them back into mainstream use.
The key to bringing them back was that in both cases there was strong community interest in saving them and enough resources to teach the language to eager learners.
Motivation is important when learning any language. Understanding what language means to both a person and a culture...to one’s sense of identity...is key to inspiring people to want to step in and save the language. If the motivation is there and the language learners have a safe, supportive environment, the chances of saving the language increases.
Why It’s Hard to Preserve Endangered Languages
Encouraging governments, schools, and neighborhoods to embrace the minority language is vital in any language preservation effort. And this can be hard in some areas that outright outlaw the use of minority languages, such as the use of Kurdish in Turkey. Without a positive view of the language in the community, repression will smother the language until it eventually disappears.
The other way to help preserve the language is to document as much of it as possible. By recording as much of the language in the written and spoken form, linguists can provide later generations of eager language-learners a chance to reconnect with the language and its culture.
Why It’s Necessary to Preserve Endangered Languages
Without this documentation, those endangered languages would blip out of existence entirely. Why does that matter? Why care about endangered languages? Why not let “the strongest” language survive? The answer to that is in what languages offer. While on the surface a language may seem like nothing more than a collection of words, in fact, it is much, much more.
Language is culture. It is the medium that we use to connect with our ideas, beliefs, emotions. It communicates our place in the world, our history, and our culture. When a language disappears, it takes away the ability to communicate one’s identity with it. And the world becomes smaller.
But it goes beyond ideologies. Living languages are old. They often extend back thousands of years. Recently, the last speaker of a language thought to be 70,000 years old died, and with it, took the ideas, history, culture, and perception of the world that that language offered.
Each language gives scientists insight into how we think as well. When you study enough languages, you learn that humans express similar concepts in numerous ways. And understanding both what we can do and our limitations goes a long way to gaining insight into the human condition.
History, art, and culture are tied to a language, but so are the hard sciences. For instance, there are many indigenous cultures that use undocumented herbs and medicines to treat ailments. Learning the health benefits, studying these medical practices, could help us advance medicine.
The Solution Rests in Learning Languages
There’s no denying that we live in a globalized world. There are both benefits and drawbacks of globalization. But one aspect of it cannot be denied: it brings different cultures increasingly connected. Promoting the value of language diversity in this connected environment will go a long way to preserving endangered languages.
We are in the Golden Age of Language learning. With so many resources available, it’s never been easier to learn a new language. And with technology, it’s never been easier to save a dying language. So, how can you help? What can you do?
Find the time to learn a new language. It doesn’t have to be an endangered language. It doesn’t have to be an extinct one. But by learning a new language, you’re taking a step in the right direction. You’re saying: languages matter. And not just your own. By taking the time to reach fluency in a language outside of your own, you’re appreciating a culture different than your own.
And that spreads.
When more people see the value in learning multiple languages, that can inspire speakers of endangered languages to finally embrace and learn their native tongue. And once there’s a motivated culture behind a language preservation movement, the effects are unstoppable.
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