Language focus | 10.10.2012

Endangered languages are struggling to survive in the modern world

The UNESCO World Atlas of endangered languages currently lists more than 3,000 languages. There are many reasons a language can become extinct. Extinction is usually attributed to military, economic, religious, cultural or educational suppression; globalization also contributes to the neglect of minority languages. Linguists have struggled to preserve and revitalize endangered languages for many years and make use of new technologies and media to preserve the cultural identity and the cultural knowledge associated with the languages. The Translation People recently blogged about Google campaigning to save the world’s endangered languages

Survival International, an organization that supports tribal people worldwide, and VOGA (Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese) deal with endangered languages. Both recently reported on their efforts to preserve the Bo language even after the death of the last known speaker Boa Senior, the only native speaker for nearly 40 years. The language dates back 65,000 years to Africa and was spoken on the Andaman Islands. Since January 2010, Bo has been considered a dead language, and it isn’t only linguists that mourn its extinction. Anthropologists also mourn the last Bo speaker since her death means the loss of historical knowledge and a cultural identity. The director of Survival International commented on this, “With the death of Boa Sr. and the extinction of the Bo language, now a unique part of our human society is nothing more than a memory. Bo’s death should be a warning to us all and not just the other tribes of the Andaman Islands.”

Boa Senior’s death was reported on by the BBC by K. David Harrison. Harrison is the author of The Last Speakers: The Quest to Uncover the World’s Most Endangered Languages, and has appeared in The Linguists, a documentary about the efforts to capture endangered languages. At the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival 2008 it received worldwide recognition. Harrison equates the survival of languages with the survival of species and speaks in this context of a parallel extinction. Harrison believes that 80% of the species are unknown, and even 80% of the languages are not yet documented. He emphasizes the important relationship that exists between our language and the environment in which we live. Harrison is also a strong supporter of new technologies which can help to make people aware of endangered languages. After The Linguist documentary aired at various film festivals, in 2009 it was published on the Babelgum website: “If the internet is used properly, it can be an enormous influence on enhancing the people’s awareness and may help to preserve minority languages.”

International organizations and institutions share this view. The European Union is funding a project for the protection and preservation of languages. The ELDIA program (European Language Diversity for All) has a grant of almost €3 million and makes use of the so-called “vitality barometer”, a gauge to show the risk of a language. ELDIA focuses its work on 14 Finno-Ugric languages, such as Meänkieli in Sweden, and the variant of the Estonian language, which is spoken by Estonian workers in Germany.

Under the “Endangered Language Program” Rosetta Stone created a 2010 Chitimacha language version of its software. The objective of this program is to “prevent global language extinction”.

The people and organizations that are fighting for the survival of these languages will do anything to ensure that future generations cannot lose sight of this problem. Or to express it in the words K. David Harrison: “The fate of these languages is in the hands of the few remaining speakers, or rather, in their minds and mouths. Let’s listen to them, as long as it is still possible. “

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