Worldwide, a Language Dies Every Two Weeks
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I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today, we travel far and wide to learn about some of the rarest languages in the world. Experts say over half of the world's seven thousand languages are in danger of disappearing. Every two weeks one language disappears.
As the last speakers of a language die off, the valuable information contained within a language also disappears. Join us as we learn about the cultural value of language and why endangered languages must be protected.
What would happen if you were the only person left who spoke your language? Who would you share stories with, sing songs to, or exchange jokes with? Who would understand your names for local plants, animals and traditions? This is the example David Harrison and Gregory Anderson use to explain the situation of many people around the world whose local languages are disappearing. Mr. Harrison and Mr. Anderson head Living Tongues, an organization that studies and protects endangered languages.
Sometimes a language disappears immediately when the last person speaking it dies. Or, a local language might disappear more slowly. This happens when an official language is used more often and children stop learning the local language of their parents. This is not a new process. Official languages often represent a form of control over a group of people.
Throughout history, the language spoken by a powerful group spreads across a civilization. The more powerful culture rarely respects the language and culture of smaller ethnic groups. So, smaller cultures lose their local language as the language of the culture in power becomes the stronger influence.
For example, many native languages in the Russian area of Siberia are threatened. This is largely because of the hostile language policies of the former Soviet Union that forced the use of Russian as the official language.
The Internet could be thought of as a new method of language control. The United Nations cultural organization, UNESCO, says that ninety percent of the world's languages are not represented on the Internet.
Experts say protecting languages is very important for many reasons. Languages contain the histories, ideas and knowledge of a culture. Languages also contain valuable information about local medicines, plants and animals.
David Harrison and Gregory Anderson of Living Tongues say that many endangered languages are spoken by native cultures in close contact with the natural world. Their ancient languages contain a great deal of information about environmental systems and species of plants and animals that are unknown to scientists.
Each language also shows how a culture organizes information. For example, one word in the native language Carrier spoken in British Colombia means "he gives me an object like the fruit blueberries." In the Nivkh language of Siberia, each number can be said twenty-six different ways based on the object being counted. And, in one language in Botswana, there are three main kinds of plants and animals: edible "eat-things", harmful "bite-things" and "useless things."
Here Gregory Anderson talks about why languages are important:
"Language is in many ways, a window to the mind. What these languages contain are all kinds of ways that we structure the world. Language is a way of storing the history of a people. Languages reflect a different historical contact with other groups, for example, in the form of loan words that get borrowed from one language into another. And, for people that have no written history, language can be one of the ways that that history can be gotten at just by looking carefully at the different layers in the language."
The Living Tongues group has partnered with National Geographic to create the Enduring Voices Project. The goal of the project is to increase public attention about endangered languages and to study and document them. The project also works to prevent languages from dying out by identifying the most threatened areas where languages are disappearing. These "hotspot" areas include Northern Australia, Central South America, Eastern Siberia and parts of the United States and Canada.
For example, native people in the Northern Territory of Australia speak more than one hundred fifty languages. Many native aboriginal languages are only spoken, so there is no written record of their existence. Within this hotspot, at least eleven languages are extremely endangered. The Living Tongues team traveled to Australia in July, two thousand seven to study and record some of these native languages.
They worked with aboriginal groups to give them ideas on how to protect and teach these endangered languages. Some languages like Magati Ke only have three known speakers. So there is little that can be done to save that language. At the very least, a sound recording of the language will remain. Listen to the words of "Old Man" Patrick Nanudjul speaking Magati Ke.
Many languages are also disappearing from the northwestern part of the United States. The languages spoken by native tribes are increasingly endangered as younger generations learn and speak English. One of the most endangered languages is called Siletz Dee-ni.
It was spoken on the Siletz reservation, where the tribe lives on a protected area of land within the state of Oregon. The reservation was created in the nineteenth century to hold people from twenty-seven different native groups. The groups spoke different languages, so they developed Chinook Jargon to communicate with each other. With increased use of Chinook Jargon and English, the number of people speaking their native languages decreased.
Today, only one person on the reservation speaks Siletz Dee-ni. Living Tongues has helped the tribal members create a Siletz Dictionary to preserve knowledge of this language. Here is a recording of several words in the dictionary.
The Siletz Tribal Council also started an Athabaskan Language Program in two thousand three. The program works to create a dictionary and gives weekly classes to schoolchildren.
(SOUND: Max Chura speaking)
That was an example of the secret mixed language of Kallawaya, spoken by male traditional healers in a small community in southern Bolivia.
Kallawaya is a mixed language. It has some grammar structure and words from several other languages that are unknown or that have disappeared. Kallawaya is an ancient language. Traditional healers spoke the language at least as early as the fifteenth century during the height of the Inca civilization. Why is it a secret language? Kallawaya is passed down within families from father to son as a way of protecting the special knowledge of healers.
Experts say bringing back threatened languages is not easy, but it is very important work. One example takes place in the American state of Hawaii. The United States first claimed Hawaii as a territory in eighteen ninety-eight. Two years before, the use of the Hawaiian language was banned in private and public schools. English became the official language of Hawaii. Slowly, fewer and fewer young natives learned to speak Hawaiian fluently. The language began to disappear.
William Wilson teaches at the University of Hawaii. He says that in nineteen eighty-six fewer than fifty children in Hawaii could speak their native language fluently. That same year, the language ban was lifted after extended protests by native groups. The Hawaiian language began to be taught again in schools. Today, Mr. Wilson says about two thousand children now speak Hawaiian. He says that more importantly, many families now speak Hawaiian at home.
In Australia, Living Tongues helped an eighty-year-old woman teach a Yawuru language class to schoolchildren. She is one of only three speakers of this rare language. Gregory Anderson says the children willingly signed up to take her class. He and his team of researchers asked the children why they were in the class. The children said that Yawuru is a dying language and they needed to learn it. They said it was up to them to keep the language alive.
This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. You can learn more about Living Tongues and the Enduring Voices Project on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for Explorations in VOA Special English.
All sound clips of language examples and photographs are from livingtongues.org.