There are roughly 6,500 languages currently spoken in the world. Most linguists estimate that by the end of the 21st century, more than half of them will be extinct. Roughly 500 languages are currently listed by UNESCO as “critically endangered.” Of the existing languages, roughly 90 percent have fewer than 100,000 speakers. Language death can be caused by a variety of factors ranging from the economic to the political. The process usually begins when a younger generation fails to learn the language from their parents. The death of a language is something that negatively affects all of humankind and not just the people who spoke it. That is why dying languages need to be preserved today.
Many people don’t think we should be saving or preserving dying languages because they don’t understand the value of what is lost when a language dies. A language is more than just a collection of words that have meaning; a language is the way in which a group of people think of and discuss the world around them. It’s how people solve problems and interpret their experiences, and every language does it differently. Because of this, languages provide scientists with important insight into neurology and psychology.
A language can provide incredible insight into a culture and its worldview. For example, in Cherokee there is no word for “goodbye,” only one for “I will see you again.” Many languages can express thoughts or feelings that others cannot. Returning to the example of Cherokee, there is a word (oo-kah-huh-sdee) that describes the sensation one feels upon seeing a cute child or animal.
If we lost languages such as Cherokee, we would lose a thread in the vast tapestry that comprises human understanding of the world, and we’d never get it back.
Since the vast majority of world languages aren’t written, many are also rich in oral traditions. Some of the most famous and important stories in the Western tradition, such as the “Odyssey” and the “Iliad,” were passed orally for generations before finally being written down. If not, they very well could have died with Ancient Greek. Even the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm were all oral traditions before the two brothers compiled them. Imagine what we would have lost if they were never written and the German language was subsequently forgotten.
Countless traditions, stories and songs such as these are lost every time a language dies. For example, the Tofa people of Siberia (whose language has only 93 speakers) no longer remember their old creation story about a duck laying the first egg. Even a story as whimsical as that can provide anthropologists and laymen alike with an appreciation for how people understood their environment.
With the death of a language also comes the disappearance of scientific or mathematical knowledge known only to its speakers. Many people are intimately familiar with their environment and their languages contain words for animals and plants that are unknown to modern science. They are also familiar with possible medicinal properties and benefits of various flora that can be lost forever if a language goes extinct.
When a language dies and it hasn’t been recorded, humanity as a whole is affected by this loss of collective human knowledge, and whether we know it or not our lives are made that much poorer.