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The Why and How of Language Preservation

February 21, 2015 marked the celebration of the 15th annual International Mother Language Day. Established in November of 1999 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the day serves as a reminder of the UN’s goal “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.”

This naturally raises a question: Do all languages need to be preserved and, if so, why?

An expert in linguistics might harrumph at the question, but to the lay person, it is a fair one. What benefits do we derive from a world in which over 6,000 languages exist? Is making efforts to preserve “endangered” languages the way we might a rare species in danger of extinction a worthwhile endeavor,  particularly in cases where only a small number of speakers exist?

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The Why

The linguist James Crawford submitted that when a language dies, it takes four major elements with it out of the world:linguistic diversity, intellectual diversity, cultural diversity, and cultural identity. These factors, Crawford argued, make the loss of a language similar to the loss of a species; once it is gone, there may be no way to recover what the world has lost.

Organizations like The National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages agree and are seeking to prevent such losses whenever possible. They postulate that the unique mores, methods, knowledge, and culture of a society are wrapped up in its language, and that preserving the language is critical to preserving the culture. Particularly in cases of languages without a written form, losing the language can mean losing anything its speakers knew about local ecosystems and geography, knowledge acquired over centuries and perhaps irreplaceable.

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The How

There are challenges to the preservation process; many of the rarer languages are endangered because their speakers are not passing them along to the next generation, preferring their children learn a language which (they believe) affords them better access to the outside world. The findings of the recent “Global Distribution and Drivers of Language Extinction Risk”, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, indicate that these speakers may be onto something. 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.  They are reaping benefits unavailable to them using their native language – responding rationally to an economic incentive.

Compelling groups to continue speaking languages they no longer find practical is both ineffective and unseemly. This is particularly true when members of the group are gaining concrete benefits from adopting a more widely-used language. Instead, linguists and anthropologists dedicated to preserving rare languages are building partnerships with the communities who speak them, seeking to record as much of the spoken and written language as possible for posterity. This approach represents the best of both worlds: enabling native speakers of rare languages to better access the world at large while, at the same time, preserving the invaluable knowledge these groups have accumulated over centuries.

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