Endangered Languages: To learn or not to learn.

An interesting article by Languages Around The Globe (click to jump to their blog)

Would you ever decide to study a language that was spoken by only 50,000 people? What about 5,000 people? 500 people? 5?Many of us make decisions about which language(s) to study based on a perception of their global worth. That is to say that we’re usually most interested in languages that can confer upon us some direct, personal benefit.

This usually comes in the form of enhanced employment, travel, the ability to communicate with a new romantic partner from abroad or their family. We might even choose a language simply to pursue its literature, movies or music.

But most of us would never take the time out of our lives to (painstakingly) acquire an endangered indigenous language that wasn’t directly relevant to our own heritage.

School of Life
(Photo credit: M R Hasan)

You know the sort – few hundred speakers, no writing system, only the elderly still remember it at all. Use of Internet, radio, film or other recordings is probably slim to none and without some serious concerted preservation efforts, the language won’t last another 20 years.

So, assuming you could even find the appropriate materials/tutors, would you bother to learn it knowing full well that your own acquisition of the language is unlikely to make a significant impact on its survival?

If you answer “no” to this question; don’t worry. You’re not a bad person. Most people wouldn’t.

While most linguists seem to be staunch supporters of indigenous/minority language preservation and documentation, there are still many who very strongly believe these efforts to be a waste of time and money.

Why bother preserving something nobody wants to speak?” is a question I often hear in relation to these languages. If the speakers are turning away from their tribal language in the pursuit of a more mainstream national or international language, is their life really any worse off?

While this question usually underscores a fundamental ignorance of what a dying language means to a native speaker, it isn’t a question entirely without merit.

Sometimes when a language’s fate is so bleak, such as is the case with many of the world’s moribund languages, it may start to seem ridiculous and even unwise to start directing government money into preservation efforts for indigenous languages.

In addition many in the language enthusiast community that write about endangered languages and their value or lack thereof fail to recognize the difference between preservation/revitalization and documentation efforts.

While there are many languages that are in fact responding well to revitalization programs sponsored by their governments or by local efforts such as talking dictionaries, radio programs or emphasis on native language use in schools, the vast majority of the languages in need may be too far gone for this sort of longer term aid.

The best these likely doomed languages can hope for at this point is documentation, and this truly is a race against the clock as linguists scramble to record, study and analyze these languages – most of which may have no written history to speak of and only a handful of surviving speakers.

Distribution of language families and isolates...
Language families and isolates
north of Mexico at first contact.

Those linguists working in documentation aren’t usually attempting to learn the languages themselves. Naturally they may pick up bits and pieces but their goal is not language acquisition, it’s the preservation of the knowledge of the speakers into electronic data banks. A sad ending for a distinct culture, but far better than oblivion.

So back to the question at hand: should you learn an endangered language?

As with all language learning recommendations I make I would advise learning what you love.

If you’re fascinated by Lakota (~6,000 speakers) and you can access the resources needed to learn the language; you should do it without concerning yourself over whether Lakota will help you find a better job or travel abroad.

If however you are concerned with more ‘typical’ language benefits, such as money, travel and meeting people, you probably wouldn’t choose an endangered language, and that’s okay.

Whether you are determined to be one of the select few individuals interested in personally learning a minority language or you have no interest in doing anything of the sort, it is most important to be aware of the issues facing the majority of the world’s languages and the ramifications of their extinction.

Would you learn an endangered language?

Would you assign certain speaker criteria of a language such as a minimum number of speakers? Are you currently studying or have you studied in the last a minority language that faces extinction? Are you a native speaker of a language in a situation like this? Leave a comment (link to their blog) and tell us your stories!


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