More Than Half of All Languages in the World Are in Danger of Disappearing

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I'm Steve Ember.  And I'm Faith Lapidus with Explorations in VOA Special English. Today we tell about the loss of languages and attempts to save them.

About six thousand languages are spoken in the world today.  But experts estimate that more than half of them are in danger of disappearing.  The endangered languages are spoken by some older members of native groups, but not used for everyday life by younger members.  As the old people die, the language dies with them.

Until recently, most people were not worried about the loss of languages. There was much more concern about the loss of different kinds of plants and animals.  Now, scientists, cultural experts and many other people are concerned about protecting the different languages in the world. They know that when a language is lost, the culture and much of the knowledge of the native community may be lost with it.

Languages are the means by which people seek to explain the world they live in. Information about the natural world, such as plants that can be used to heal, often is lost when the language dies.  Some experts say the death of any language is a loss for everyone, not just for the native people who once spoke it.

During the last century, government suppression of native languages was common around the world, including the United States.  In eighteen sixty-eight, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed a federal committee to try to make peace with American Indian tribes.  The tribes were fighting to protect their lands.

The committee decided that language differences were the problem.  It said that all people in the United States should speak the same language so they would think the same way.  It said American Indian children should be taken from their homes and sent to live in government boarding schools where they would speak only English.

The federal government established its first boarding school for American Indian children in eighteen seventy-nine.  Children were punished if they spoke their native languages.  For fifty years, thousands of Native American children were sent to these schools to live, work and be educated in English.  By the late nineteen thirties, many of the schools had closed. But their effects on American Indian languages continued.

In the nineteen sixties, interest in saving native cultures and languages grew.  Government policies changed.  By nineteen sixty-eight, the American government helped start some of the first tribal language programs in the public school system.

In nineteen ninety, a Native American organization reported to Congress about the importance of saving and using tribal languages. It said information about the past and about spiritual, ceremonial and natural worlds is passed on through spoken language.  Without the language, the group said, a culture can be damaged beyond repair.

That year the United States Congress passed the Native American Languages Act.  It established a federal policy aimed at saving the languages of American Indian tribes.  But the years of government attempts to force American Indians to speak English meant many tribal languages were in danger or dead.

Government suppression is not the only reason languages are lost around the world. Younger people leave their native communities to get jobs in cities where they use only the language of the majority.  Wars, floods, lack of rain, or loss of land to development can force members of a community to leave their traditional homelands. They flee to other countries to live with speakers of other languages.  And in recent years, television, movies and the Internet have made English a worldwide language of communication.

The United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization is trying to solve this problem.  It has been taking steps to develop international policies to support native cultures and save endangered languages.  In two thousand one, Unesco passed the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity.  It has several goals: To protect all languages.  To support the use and teaching of native languages at all levels of education. And to help provide other languages on the Internet.

Unesco has a new project to help save languages.  It is called the Register of Good Practices in Language Preservation.  It is collecting reports of successful experiences of communities in creating new speakers of their languages. These include developing school programs, training teachers, creating pride in a community and developing computer programs in a native language.  The information gathered will be shared through the Internet.

The Indigenous Language Institute is a center in the United States for efforts to save native languages.  It began in nineteen ninety-two.  The headquarters of the institute is in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Inee Slaughter is the director of the organization.  Ms. Slaughter says the guiding principle of the institute is to help create speakers of native languages.  Ms. Slaughter says a language is not a living language unless it is spoken.  She says the Indigenous Language Institute must act quickly because within ten years it may be impossible to save many of the languages.  Speakers of native languages are dying faster than new speakers are learning the language.

The Indigenous Language Institute has worked with about one hundred tribes to help them find ways to keep their languages alive.  Ms. Slaughter says the institute is reaching out to all tribes through its Internet Web site, www.indigenous-language.org.  On the Web site, there are examples of successful language programs, reports about conferences and links to other organizations working to save languages.

One of the Indigenous Language Institute's projects is the publication of a series of books called "Awakening Our Languages."  A team of tribal language experts visited fifty-four tribes in the United States.  The team wanted to find out how many members of the tribe spoke the native language and what was being done to increase the number of speakers.  Information about successful programs and methods of teaching languages are included in the series.

Another project is the Language Materials Development Center.  Experts are developing and testing language materials as models for communities to use.  The institute is also providing technical training so Native language speakers can use computers as tools for teaching languages.

Experts are trying many methods to increase speakers of endangered languages.  Some projects are small.  For example, a language speaker and a learner meet every day for an hour to talk.  Other projects are large, such as schools where students are taught only in their native language.

Ms. Slaughter says that one success story is in the American state of Hawaii. In nineteen eighty-three Native Hawaiians began to teach their own language to very young children.  They started creating an immersion school where only the Hawaiian language would be used.  The idea was based on a school established by the Maori people in New Zealand.

Hawaii's Punana Leo or "language nest" project began with a group of young children in pre-school.  Now there are eleven pre-schools in the Punana Leo project.  And there are several schools where students from ages three to eighteen are taught all subjects in Hawaiian.  When the project began, fewer than fifty children in Hawaii spoke Hawaiian.

Today, almost two thousand children are able to speak their native language. Parents of the students are very involved in the Punana Leo schools.  Some of them are learning the language along with their children so they can speak Hawaiian at home.  Ms. Slaughter says family involvement is important so the language is used outside of the school walls.  A language needs to be used and spoken in all activities of everyday life to be alive in the future.

This program was written by Marilyn Christiano.  It was produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus.  Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

Source: More Than Half of All Languages in the World Are in Danger of Disappearing
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