What is language loss?
Language loss is the process of losing your mother tongue, a pandemic phenomenon affecting nearly half the world’s cultures. In fact, in the next eighty years, at least 3,000 languages are expected to disappear. A catastrophic tragedy on an intimate, human scale, the death of thousands of languages means not just the loss of grammar systems and vocabularies but the collapse of the communities who use them.
Apologists for this reality often argue that culture is dynamic, and that languages have always gone extinct to make room for new ones. After all, there would be no French without the death of Latin, and no English had Old Saxon not faded away. While this is without a doubt, the twenty-first century’s rate of language loss is unprecedented. It stems not from the natural ebb and flow of human diversity, but rather from the marginalizing forces of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when governments enforcing assimilation began pressuring minorities to abandon their cultures and adopt arbitrarily-defined ‘national languages’.
While most explicit persecution has largely subsided, little has been done in reparation. Today, with as few as 5% of the world’s languages recognized by governments or serviced by media and technology, communities impacted by language loss receive little to no support from the public or private sectors. And as the side effects of climate change, economic globalization, and humanitarian crises provoke a rise in forced migration, more and more communities are poised to experience language loss—and with it, the potential collapse of their cultures.
Language diversity is most threatened in regions where legacies of exploitation and discrimination prominently endure.
Where is language loss happening?
With rare exception, language loss is happening everywhere in the world. Indeed, almost every country is home to marginalized language communities struggling to preserve their cultures within the structures of globalization. For instance, though the United States is often described as an "English-speaking" country (or at best, a bilingual society of English and Spanish), it is home to at least 140 native languages. Of these, the vast majority are at risk.
Locally, there are regions on every continent where language loss occurs at higher densities, due to historical and contemporary political conditions. Oklahoma in the United States, the Andean regions of Bolivia and Peru, the provinces of northern Australia, and the easternmost reaches of Siberia are all home to historically persecuted indigenous populations whose linguistic heritage is in jeopardy of disappearing within a generation. In Southeast Asia, rapid urbanization is translating into forced assimilation for traditionally rural language minorities.
Humanitarian crises also contribute to the phenomenon of language loss. The Pacific region of Melanesia, for instance, is home to many island and archipelago nations threatened heavily by climate change. As rising sea levels provoke the degradation of historically habitable land, communities are forced into cycles of displacement. Vulnerable populations fleeing conflict zones are also subject to processes of forced migration and assimilation. In many cases, those who most afflicted by crisis are also members of minority cultures.
Language is the bedrock of community, the medium of culture, and an essential vehicle for social development.
Why should we prevent language loss?
When a community loses their language, bonds to their heritage are severed and the foundation of cultural identity is weakened. In fact, studies have shown that language loss is a strong factor in social alienation, leading to higher rates of underperformance in schools, depression, and even suicide. Maintaining our linguistic diversity, then, is a question of social justice, as well as economic development.
It’s also a question of research for the sciences and humanities; when a community loses their language, humanity loses generations of knowledge embodied in art, literature, and oral tradition. For instance, by comparing languages from North America to their Siberian counterparts, linguists were able to find evidence of the Bering Strait migration. Working closely with residents of southern Vanuatu, botanists continue to learn about biodiversity from the knowledge encoded in the vocabulary of local languages.
When we talk about stopping language loss, we're not worrying about dictionary sales or stocking a museum for posterity. We’re talking about preventing the collapse of human communities and the atrophy of culture. As we have seen, it's impossible to grapple with the collapse of linguistic diversity without also engaging global struggles for human rights; for environmental, economic, and racial justice.