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Languages Lost: Where Are They Going, and Why?


The Culprit

Phrases like “at-risk language” and “language extinction” carry unmistakably negative connotations, which often compel researchers and laypeople alike to a search for a villain – perhaps disease or discrimination. The true cause, according to Forbes contributor Tim Worstall, appears to be surprisingly positive: economic growth and development within the region where the affected language is spoken often drive extinction. Worstall explains:

“The cooperation of trade requires that there be some ability to converse and therefore there’s pressure to adopt some language which is mutually compatible. As large groups meet large groups then we might find some synthesis of language going on: as say English is an obvious synthesis of Romance and Germanic languages. Where small groups are meeting larger and trading with them then we’re more likely to see the adoption of the larger group language and the extinction of the smaller.”



The Upside

Languages fall out of use due to an imbalance of incentives. A minority-language-speaking group has much to gain socioeconomically by adopting the language of the majority, particularly during a period of economic growth and expansion of trade. Consequently, the smaller group has a strong incentive to change and integrate into the larger group, sometimes leading to the loss of the minority language.

Ideally, no language should disappear completely. The Proceedings study emphasizes the importance of preserving endangered dialects for their anthropological and historical value, and efforts to do just that are underway.

But what appears at first glance to be a tragedy may actually hold a silver lining. While minority groups across the globe are no longer speaking their traditional languages on an everyday basis, these changes, the data suggests, are being made voluntarily in response to strong economic growth and other incentives.  Those using another language to communicate are reaping benefits that they would not have had access to using their native language.


The Future

Will this trend continue indefinitely, leading to an eventual one-world language? Given the over-6,500 spoken languages in use worldwide today, there are some good reasons to think not – at least not any time soon. It is safe to say then thatcommunicating with one another, in a wide variety of languages will remain the norm for many years to come.

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