Based on a new model similar to those used for predicting species loss, a team of biologists, mathematicians, and linguists in Australia has determined that, without effective conservation, language loss will increase five-fold by 2100.
According to Lindell Bromham, an evolutionary biologist at Australian National University who led the study, she and her colleagues suspected that by borrowing modelling techniques from studies on biodiversity loss, they might be able to capture a more statistically sound view of language diversity loss. They analyzed 6,511 languages that are still spoken or have ceased to be spoken (known as “sleeping” languages). They compared the languages’ endangerment status—based on which generations continue to learn and speak the language—with 51 variables related to the legal recognition of the language, demographics, education policies, environmental features, and socioeconomic indicators.
The study found that various factors could lead to the loss of more than 20% of the world’s languages by the end of the century—equivalent to one language vanishing per month.
Denser road networks were associated with higher levels of language loss on a global scale, Bromham said. That could be attributed to the fact that roads increase the level of commuting between rural areas and larger towns, leading to a greater influence of commerce and centralized government and the languages associated with them. Increased interaction between cultures also leads to higher levels of education, another factor the study linked to greater loss of local language across the globe.
“This is a very worrying result,” Bromham said. “But I want to emphasize that we are not saying education is bad or that kids shouldn’t go to school. Rather, we’re saying that we need to make sure bilingualism is supported, so that children get the benefit of education without the cost to their own Indigenous language competency.”
Marybeth Nevins, a linguist and anthropologist at Middlebury College in Vermont who wasn’t involved in the study, said she finds it both troubling and understandable that schooling would predict endangerment.
“Schooling establishes a whole new set of practices designed to orient the student to the historically encroaching institutions,” Nevins said. “While 20th century schools were based on single language learning, modern digital technology allows for multilingualism in government institutions, including schools, but with adequate Indigenous language resources, schooling need not lead to endangerment.”
Holding onto local languages is critical, Nevins said, as it represents a way to maintain the history and culture of Indigenous people who were “forcibly incorporated into the capitalist world system.”
“Language is a kind of proof of ancestral life, a powerful resource against political erasure, a means of reclamation,” she said. “For all of us, Indigenous languages are indispensable to understanding the nature, diversity and historic spread of human beings on our shared planet.”
Read Full Article from New Scientist (United Kingdom) (12/16/21)
Author: Lesté-Lasserre, Christa
News summaries © copyright 2020 SmithBucklin