Language focus | 12.02.2010

Endangered languages and their fight for survival in the modern world

There are more than 3,000 languages currently included in UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages, which cites mainly external forces as the main culprits for a language’s demise: military, economic, religious, cultural and educational subjugation. Add to this the spread of globalisation and it would seem that time is running out for many world languages. Linguists have long been battling to preserve and revitalize these vanishing languages and are using new technologies and media to safeguard the cultural identity and knowledge contained therein.

Two such organisations involved in this task are Survival International (an organization supporting tribal peoples worldwide) and VOGA (Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese). Both recently reported on their endeavours to preserve the Bo language and the death of its last known speaker – Boa Sr (its sole native speaker for close to 40 years). The language is thought to have originated in Africa almost 65,000 years ago. But since January 2010, Bo has become a dead language and its loss has not only been felt by linguists – anthropologists are also mourning the death of the last Bo speaker, as her death signifies the loss of a cultural identity and vital historical knowledge. Survival International’s Director stated that “With the death of Boa Sr and the extinction of the Bo language, a unique part of human society is now just a memory. Boa’s loss is a bleak reminder that we must not allow this to happen to the other tribes of the Andaman Islands.’

Following Boa Sr’s death, the BBC ran an in-depth report by K. David Harrison – a ‘scientist exploring the world’s vanishing languages’. He is the author of The Last Speakers: The Quest to Uncover the World’s most Endangered Languages and featured in The Linguists – a documentary charting the journey to document dying languages and which received worldwide acclaim when it premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Harrison equates the survival of language with the survival of species which he claims exhibit ‘parallel extinctions.’ He believes that 80% of animal species are unknown to science and 80% of languages are yet to be documented and as such, highlights the important relationship between language and the environment in which we live. This can be seen further with VOGA, who has been involved in publishing a book covering the Ethno-linguistic-ornithological aspects of the birds of Andaman, and UNESCO also recognizes the importance of native languages to medical and geographical fields.

Harrison is also a strong advocate of the role that new technologies play in raising awareness of the plight of endangered languages. Following the screening of The Linguists at various festivals worldwide, it was released on the Babelgum website in 2009: ‘The Internet, used strategically, has enormous capacity to help get the word out, and to help sustain and support small languages.’

International organisations and institutions also share this viewpoint. The European Union is funding a project to protect and preserve languages. The ELDA (European language diversity for all) program has received nearly 3 million Euros in funding and boasts a ‘vitality barometer’ to measure languages which are becoming extinct. It will focus on 14 Finno-Ugric languages such as Meänkieli in Sweden and the language spoken by Estonian migrant workers in Germany.

In January 2010, the Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program reported on the launch of their Chitimacha language version of Rosetta Stone® software – aimed at ‘reversing the tide of global language extinction’ and the program rights of which have been exclusively released to the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana.

In Canada, The UBC Museum of Anthropology has just opened a new gallery which houses the exhibit ‘Border Zones’. It includes a multimedia installation focussing on the Gitxsanimaax language which has an estimated 400 speakers. Artist John Wynne worked with a linguist to gather examples of the language and has created an audio-visual ‘soundscape’ which will ultimately be returned to the community in which the language is spoken. (CBC News).

The individuals and organizations fighting for the survival of these languages will ensure that a multitude of voices will live on for many future generations. In the words of K. David Harrison ‘Linguistic survivors hold the fates of languages in their minds and mouths. Let’s listen while we still can.’

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