Killing Culture: How Language Extinction Harms Humanity

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Aka-Bo now joins another dead language from the same area, Aka-Kora, which died out in 20092.
The list of endangered and extinct languages is long and like animal extinctions, most go unnoticed and unsung. With more than 7,000 spoken languages on the planet, at first glance it seems as if there is an inexhaustible supply - except we lose an average of one language every two weeks. This is faster than animal extinction and culling a resource that is smaller. Linguists estimate that we will lose half of the world's languages in the next twenty years3; in the next forty years, 90% will be extinct4.

The critical killer of native tongues is the same as the killer of species: modern lifestyles and globalization. Speakers quickly come to see the proverbial writing on the wall. "If you wish to get ahead in an increasingly globalized world, learn the language of business." Instead of learning their historical language, young people abandon it as old and useless. They do not see the value of their own culture in a race to get the benefits that modern life has to offer. Commerce is global and to participate, native speakers are forced to learn, use and think in one of the major languages. English is valuable, Bodo is not. And just as few notice the passing of some rare insect or plant, the public doesn't appreciate the loss of Eyak, an Alaskan tongue that died with Mary Smith Jones in 20082.
Linguist K. David Harrison, author of The Last Speakers, puts it this way, "The decision to give up one language or to abandon a language is not usually a free decision. It's often coerced by politics, by market forces, by the educational system in a country, by a larger, more dominant group telling them that their language is backwards and obsolete and worthless."3 He explains that the very young (5 and 6-year olds) quickly learn which of the languages they are exposed to are valuable. Without these children to carry a language forward, when the older generation dies, the language itself fades away.
Globalization works to kill languages in another way as well. With improved communications and increased connectivity - seen as social goods themselves - languages can no longer hide in remote pockets. Exposure to a dominant language works like an invasive species which out-competes native wildlife. And with each new cycle of exposure and extinction, diversity lessens.

Why language diversity matters
Those who are bilingual know something the rest do not. They know that there are concepts which exist in one language that are missing in another. Monolinguals find small examples when a word from another language is adopted to fill a gap in their own. One that has recently become popular is schadenfreude, a German word that means, loosely, "the good feeling you get when something bad happens to another person."

This definition is twelve words long; in German, the concept is captured in one. Another example is juggernaut, one of thousands of words originated from an old and now dying Indian language Sanskrit, describes "a team or group of people working together, or a growing political movement led by a charismatic leader" - and it often bears an association with being crushingly destructive. There are many more examples in English, such as "antenna" a word that originated in the extinct language of Etruscan and came to us through another dead language, Latin. These "loan words" are just a small part of the picture.
The larger concern is that cultures are intimately tied to the languages they use. Ideas and ideals expressed in one tongue may not be captured in their fullness in another. What's worse is that most of the dying languages do not have a written form and they cannot be preserved in their completeness by recordings either.
Imagine if all of Shakespeare were lost, or any of a thousand thinkers. The problem is that while we can see the value of those languages we speak, the value of those endangered or extinct cannot be seen as readily. Like a unique flower in the jungle that is never cataloged or investigated yet contains a life-saving antibiotic, we cannot know what precious ideas have been squandered because once gone, there is no way to recover a language.
An example from Rudyard Kipling shows how ideas are transmitted. Kipling is writing about Kabir, a 15th Century Indian poet and philosopher. Kabir was illiterate, his songs and philosophy were created in the oral form only. Thankfully, we know about him because his native tongue, Hindi, thrives (although English is also an official language of the country). Kipling spoke Hindi fluently and the culture of India was deeply interwoven into his works.
My brother kneels, so saith Kabir,
To stone and brass in heathen-wise
But in my brother's voice I hear
My own unanswered agonies.
His God is as his fates assign
His prayer is all the world's... and mine.
In a world rife with religious intolerance, this short poem expresses a powerful idea, an idea that reaches across time through language. It is only by language preservation that we can access this great library of human wisdom.
The Internet, a Blessing and a Curse
There is no denying the broad impact the Internet has had on communication. It has evolved enough so that anyone who wishes can learn a second language for free. Not only can they learn to read and write it, but there are utilities that allow training in the spoken forms. This is a great blessing - one that isn't as well used as it should be, and therein lies the curse.
The curse is that by being almost universal, the Internet pushes toward a single community and monolingualism. It is currently about a third English, another third in Chinese (Mandarin) and all the rest of the world's languages filling a final third5. Most of the commerce on the Internet happens in either English or Chinese. The problem is that not speaking one of these main languages denies a user what they want - ready access to all the goodies.
It is a very subtle poison. By increasing communication, we are killing it. True communication comes from shared experience and cross-cultural understanding. These, in turn, are largely language driven. When you are able to speak to another in their native tongue it engenders empathy and a strong connection. Trust is the result.
By moving toward one or a few languages, we take out the richness and the flavors diversity brings. By not teaching our young to speak more than the language we deem important, we deny them not only a life affirming experience, but we actually make them dumber and less equip for success in tomorrow's inter-connected global society. There is a strong association between being multilingual and higher intelligence, greater income and a better quality of life.
It is only by being an advocate of languages that we can fight the disturbing slide toward a worldwide monoculture. We have to value and praise those who buck the trend, encourage the teaching of multiple languages to our young and keep diversity alive. Languages are fragile things. They require constant tending. When a language is not passed along to the young as the treasure it is, it dies in a single generation, taking with it thousands of years of human knowledge, culture and wisdom. As a powerful example Sanskrit, which gave many of the foundational words to English, German and others such as Man, Father, Mother, Brother, Son, Name, and countless more, is at its death bed now.
If left unchecked, Globalization can prove detrimental to rich language and cultural diversity of India and around the world. The need to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism is louded by UNESCO and UN, designating 21st Feb International Mother Language Day. It is with sorrow for the loss and much hope to make a difference and change the trend before its too late, we at TumBOLO.org are putting humble effort to do something about it - to create awareness and promote language diversity. Please let us know at tumbolo@hotmail.com if you have any guidance or if you can help. We will surely appreciate your time and suggestions.

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