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Should We Save Endangered Languages? Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Should We Try to Save the World’s Endangered Languages from Extinction?

The more integrated the world economy becomes, the more languages are placed in danger of extinction. As people from different cultures interact with each other, languages merge or lose favor to others. People with a native language that is unfamiliar and spoken by only a few may opt to learn another, more widespread language and pass this new language on to their children. In turn, their children may find themselves speaking the new language more than the native. This is how a language begins to become endangered. According to Crystal’s article, “Revitalizing Languages”, there are approximately 6,000 languages in the world. Crystal writes that half of these languages will become extinct over the next 100 years. By that calculation, a language dies out every two weeks. (Crystal, 2002) The rapid die out of languages in the world has been garnering attention from various academics, politicians, institutions, and organizations. Where these individuals, institutions, and organizations place the preservation of endangered languages on the scale of importance varies greatly. A language’s important link to culture and lifestyle and the bilingual connection to improved mental health are strong reasons for trying to save the world’s endangered languages from extinction. There are many arguments for and against the active preservation of endangered languages. If we do not attempt to rescue the world’s endangered languages from the edge of extinction, many benefits for the human population will be lost along with the languages.

There are many arguments against trying to save endangered languages. One of the biggest arguments against the effort is that of costliness. Others argue that if the language is endangered, it is because the younger generation does not wish to carry it on and if that is the case, then why intervene? Still, another argument broaches the cultural connection directly, holding that language is a result of geography and not interdependent with a group’s culture at all.

The argument concerning cost most often comes from politicians wishing to preserve funds for another purpose and public citizens who see money used to preserve endangered languages as a misuse of resources in place of more important tasks. It is true that preserving minority languages can be a large and time-consuming expenditure. Costs for preserving a language include travel expenses for getting linguists into the field and living expenses for while they are there, training local analysts, supporting the community by providing local language courses and teachers, writing materials for use in schools, and often the costs of transcribing or recording the language as written word. (Crystal, 2002) After all, only about 200 of the world’s 6,000 languages are written ones. (McWhorter, 2009) Professor David Crystal estimates that the cost to preserve an endangered language is about $100,000 a year per language. Consider a concentrated effort to preserve 3,000 endangered languages. Over a period of three years, according to Crystal’s figure, the cost would come to about $900 million. (Crystal, 2002) In the face of other global concerns, such as hunger, poverty, and AIDS, it would be a waste of resources to allocate that amount of funds to language preservation.

That it would be a waste of resources to allocate a high amount of funds to the preservation of endangered languages leads into the next argument: if a language is endangered, it is because the younger generation does not want to learn it. If the younger generation of native speakers does not wish to carry on the language, then government institutions should not subsidize the teaching of it. (Crystal, 2002) The logic that this is a natural death of the language may be tried.

And as one argument leads into another, discussion of the younger generations in societies with minority languages leads to discussion of the survival of different cultures. The stance that language and culture are inexorably connected is perhaps the most commonly known argument for the effort to preserve endangered languages. But John McWhorter argues that language and culture are not interdependent; language is a result solely of geography. (McWhorter, 2009) To support this idea, in his article, “The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English,” McWhorter writes, “In fact, all human groups could, somehow, exhibit the exact same culture—and yet their languages would be as different as they are now, because the differences are the result of geographical separation, leading to chance linguistic driftings of the kind that turn augustus into agosto and août.” (McWhorter, 2009)

It is so that McWhorter could be right on with his geographical attribution of languages. The geographical distribution of groups of people and those groupings subsequent intermingling with or isolation from other groupings is likely the cause of the development of multiple languages. However, the language of a distinct group often describes the culture of its speakers in ways that no other language can. McWhorter himself acknowledges this when he discusses the death of the Eyak language of southern Alaska. In his discussion, McWhorter cites the Eyak word “al” which is for an evergreen branch. He notes that the word is made by producing a whistling past the sides of the tongue on the final sound of the word, and that this whistling sound imitates the sound of the wind passing through an evergreen branch. (McWhorter, 2009) With this example of language McWhorter had dispelled his own argument. The imitation of the sound of the branch in the word says something about the way the Eyak speakers view their world. It tells what they valued most within their culture, what they considered to be important to know about their world.

The extinction of the Eyak language concurred with the death of the last native speaker, so the willingness or unwillingness of a younger generation to carry on the language cannot be examined in that context. And while many linguists have found it to be the case, they have also found that a variety of factors influence the younger generations in this decision. Professor Jared Diamond contends that the main executioner of endangered languages is modern life. (Matthews, 2010) In his article, Matthews notes that when Europeans arrived in North America, there were more than 1,000 languages spoken across the continent, but estimates few of these will survive past 2100. (Matthews, 2010) Speaking these native Indian languages will not help one get a job, watch television, earn a degree, or socialize in the majority of social situations. So while the younger generations, in large part, do make a conscious decision not to speak their native language, it is not a decision attributable to a rejection of the language itself, but attributable to the willingness to succeed outside their immediate cultural and familial circle. Those that continue to speak native languages within their cultural and familial circles cite a great sense of group cohesion and pride in their culture and heritage. (Matthews, 2010) This suggests that the younger generation does not necessarily desire to forgo their native language, but view it as something linking them with their cultural and geographical group.

As to the question of cost, in his article Matthews records that $4 million in federal funds is spent annually on native language preservation. (Matthews, 2010) The answer to the question on whether this money is well spent or not hinges entirely on whether one thinks an attempt to save endangered languages should be made. Just as McWhorter notes in his article that we are likely to find the reasons and meanings for words in other languages more interesting than our own, we find the cultures those languages depict interesting as well. While the human race may survive with a single dominant language and universal culture, why would we want to erase all that interesting diversity?

References

Bider, D 2010, St. Kitts & Nevis ‘Are dying languages worth saving?’ Retrieved November 26, 2010, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11304255

Crystal, D. (2002). Revitalizing Languages. Retrieved July 28, 2012, from Language Magazine: http://moodle.ucl.ac.uk/file.php/4289/COURSE_TASKS

Matthews, K. (2010, April 14). Are native languages worth saving? A globetrotting scholar says yes. Retrieved July 28, 2012, from UCLA Today: http://today.ucla.edu/portal/ut/learning-languages-benefits-brain-156973.aspx

McWhorter, J. (2009). The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English. Retrieved July 28, 2012, from World Affairs: http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/cosmopolitan-tongue-universality-
english

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