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Endangered Languages

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K. David Harrison, associate director of the Living Tongues Institute based in Salem once said, “When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday.”  This can be seen throughout the evolution of civilization, when other cultures became more dominant and took over the native languages in which their special ideas on creativity as well as diversity died out due to their loss of culture. In the 20th century, it is obvious that some languages will eventually die out due to the small population that they already began with, but is there more to to the reason behind why languages are endangered?  Well, throughout the world today, a language dies every 14 days due to various causes and eventually leads to harmful effects. This issue is significant to solve because the language they have held can help achieve future success in society and the cultural variations of their landscape disappears, leaving nothing but white generations to come. Although numerous people want globalization to extend throughout the world, there must be solutions to revitalizing languages that can be saved instead of a language that is not even close to having around 500-1,000 speakers.


To begin with, there are many causes as to why languages are going extinct. One of the most known causes is genocide which can be seen at times like the Holocaust where there is usually one powerful leader or group that wants to destroy a whole other culture due to stereotypes. According to endgenocide, they retell the events of Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, “..... the Khmer Rouge seized…..effectively ousting the Lon Nol government…. into labor camps in the countryside, where physical abuse, disease, exhaustion, and starvation were extremely prevalent.” This indicates that this language was endangered due to policies inspired from Maoist and Marxist-Leninist theories where they attempted to transform the Cambodia into a rural classless society comprised of collectivized farms showing that through genocide, the cambodian language known as Khmai decreased from a higher power that abused them into a peasant farming society. Next, another cause of language extinction is assimilation which often done through schooling, where a dominant group takes over the language by ‘brainwashing’ and forcing them to learn a new language while removing the kids from their homes so they will not be able to spread their native language to future generations. The Maori people can be taken for consideration for example, in the Maori school reading, it says, “The purpose of the Maori denominational boarding schools was to take Maori students... inculcate European values and customs, and then send the ‘assimilated’ students back home to uplift their communities.” Even though boarding schools weren’t as common as they were back in the 1800’s-1950’s, many people who speak languages in less fortunate areas today are still being taken away to become a complete new person. Since Maori children were seen as the “primitive culture and language”, New Zealand wanted a better future for these Maori in order to not be called “savage” by the Europeans. This would diminish the Maori language and put them into a class structure where they won’t be “too successful” but not “lacking education” with the government’s help. Finally,  the last significant types of causes are imported diseases and natural disasters. These can potentially kill off a population if the death toll gets really high and no young people can be left behind to spread generations across. Most of the imported diseases came from white settlers that wanted to either take over or search land, but eventually meet people of different languages causing the spread. Natural disasters depend on what the geography is of where the language is spoken, like if it is dry or flat, or if it is surrounded by water and has a warm climate. An example of this was when Hawaii was not yet annexed and had begun to settle in; these settlers were known as Polynesians in which the Polynesian language was a language family group of around 30 branches. In the article, “Hawaii- U.S History”, it states, “Although the population may have been as high as 300,000 as the time of first contact with Europeans, imported diseases killed many of the natives by the early 1800s.” This illustrates the the languages from the Polynesian family mostly died out due to European travelers that came centuries later. Not only this, but the Hawaiian language was also affected by hurricanes and tsunamis at various times in its history and started to get displaced with English once Hawaii became apart of the United States. In the end, the causes of genocide, assimilation, natural disasters and imported diseases were the main contributing factors as to why languages go extinct.


Furthermore, there are also negative effects when a language goes extinct that hurts society as a whole and impacts the future to success. The first effect is that when a language goes extinct, it is easier for the minority culture to assimilate to the dominant culture because most of the culture is based off of language and tradition where tradition can be easily enforced upon while language has to be taught. For example, in the movie, “Rabbit Proof Fence”, the girl Daisy and two other girls are taken away from their homes to a boarding school for half-castes in order for them to have white-blood for further generations. They were forced to wear proper clothing,speak English at all times (“We don’t use that jabber here. We speak English”’) as well as sing to  A.O Neville (chief protector of aborigines) and do chores. This describes how simple it was to strip away their language first rather than culture because that is what makes them separate and not be able to communicate with their other family members if they would ever be found. Secondly, another effect of losing a language is losing the cultural diversity of the world and being even closer to the English language than ever due to globalization. According to languageconservancy, it states that, “...an estimated 90% of the world’s 6,000 languages will become extinct or near-extinct in the next 100 years.” Through these statistics, it can be noted that numerous countries and cities will be less independent because they will depend on languages from other countries. Not only this but the lack of diversity prevents students from learning new languages since it is not necessary for them, where even research (sources cited below) has proven that when children that know more languages focus better. Also knowing more languages also delays the onset of Alzheimer's. A study showed that the onset in many began at the age of 71. In the people that knew more languages, the onset was delayed until the age of 75. But, the most major effect is the world losing its uniqueness and differences which make people less interested in learning about other languages since everyone already knows the same one. The final effect of losing a language is losing their cultural knowledge and perceptions as well as modes of expression. This means that local knowledge about medicinal secrets, ecological wisdom, weather and climate patterns, spiritual attitudes, and mythological histories will be lost that could have potentially helped. An example of how this can be expressed is through Wade Davis’ “Dreams from endangered cultures” on TED talk, where he defines language as a flash of human spirit, and ecosystem of spiritual possibilities and that it is not just a body of vocabulary. This proves that the effect of languages dying is having to lose linguistic / cultural information which is humanity's great legacy and sums up the world’s thoughts and dreams. Language is known as “the DNA of culture” where for example, a language might make a lexical distinction between two different types of plants and  be able to provide medical benefits for many. In the end, language extinction does not only affect the culture who speaks it themselves, but also hurts us for further generations to come.


Even though it may seem that there are no solutions to saving a language that may have up to 1 native speaker left, there are still many ways to revitalize endangered languages throughout the world that will sooner or later go extinct. One of the first proposed solutions is to document languages that are endangered, through audio recordings  to mapping, this will help people become more aware of the language that needs support. This can be seen through David Crystal’s , “Revitalizing Languages” article, where he talks about a language in Southern Australia known as Kaurna that had been extinct for a century. But, the language was well documented so it grew to its revival and although it was not the same language as before since it lacked a lot of the old vocabulary, it showed that someone’s identity can be saved. This explains how a language can be saved if the people value the documentation as a true marker of identity so if they are prepared enough, they can develop new functions / vocabulary just like any other living language today. Another way this can be described is  through the endangered language alliance’s work which can be seen on their website (about us- how?), “ ...documenting endangered languages can be viewed as unethical, like a portrait artist plying their trade in an emergency room. There is nothing wrong with painting portraits, but the emergency room is a place for surgeons, not analysts.” This helps develop the idea behind the solution of documenting, where they aren’t here to learn about the language and make it better but to fix it with keeping these sources for the people that live there and follow that culture. Another solution is simply through more and better education. For example, the language Lakota was a Native American Language in Dakota but slowly died out during the 1950’s due to assimilation so, according to the “South Dakota Magazine”, it says, “Staff test more than 6,000 children every fall and spring and monitor progress by reading reports from people like Sacheen Whitetail Cross, tribal education manager for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.” This proves that since they do these types of programs that enforce more effort out of the kids, they spend more time learning the language with sources like CDs and textbooks as well as a large staff. Also, through targeting young people there will be an increase in these language speakers since when there are fluent elders that die, they can’t be replaced so we need strong and ambitious people for it to spread. Even David Crystal states that, “There needs to be funding, to support courses, materials, and teachers. And there needs to be linguists…” By providing these resources, it encourages the community to save its language and to respect that this language will be down on paper for more literary sources and to actually increase the computer-literate civilization so that people can educate this language themselves in other places to spread that culture. Overall, these are the two main solutions to helping a language be revitalized and have their culture saved as well.
In conclusion, endangered languages have steadily increased in the 21st century. Even though there is a decrease in boarding schools and genocide, things like globalization, diseases as well as assimilation in less fortunate countries still occur today. By leaving these endangered languages as they are, we are simply digging our own hole in the loss of cultural diversity, loss of cultural variations in the landscape disappears and their cultural knowledge which could unlock new solutions for the world. Even languages like Irish are going extinct in the most unexpected ways and will end up having one elder only know the language and die with it instead of having young educated people become interested to preserve this language. Now in New Zealand, Maori communities established nursery schools staffed by elders and conducted entirely in Maori, called kohanga reo, 'language nests'. There, as well as in Alaska, Hawaii, and elsewhere, this model is being extended to primary and sometimes even secondary school. In places like California, younger adults have become language apprentices to older adult speakers in communities where only a few older speakers live there.  Not only are we capable of training local analysts, but we can also support the community through donating toward school resources like teachers and writing material as well as document it. Through our hands and our mouths, we are able to define the distinction between others and their own special story that comes with it, but it is up to us if we want to preserve this beauty known as diversity.






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