Thousands of languages are facing extinction

Date: Mon 01 Sep 2003 - 19:56:03 GMT

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    Thousands of languages are facing extinction iol1062170272229L522&set_id=1# Paris - More than 300 languages have become extinct, and
    "thousands" more are hurtling down the same road, say Daniel Abrams and Steven Strogatz of New York's Cornell University.

    "Ninety percent of languages are expected to disappear with this generation."

    It is a linguistic loss whose equivalent in biodiversity is the mass extinction 65 million years ago of innumerable species, including the dinosaurs.

    The website, the most authoritative database on languages, lists 6 809 spoken today. Of these, 357 have fewer than 50 speakers.

    In the case of Abaga, a language spoken in Papua New Guinea's Eastern Highlands Province, only five people spoke it in 1994. Almost 10 years on, it may have vanished.

    Scientific tools that help to explain how a language erodes and dies and what can be done to defend it are only now emerging.

    Evolutionary biologists are struck by similar patterns between threatened tongues and threatened biodiversity. A language, like species, can head for oblivion if it is threatened by a powerful invader; if it no longer has a large enough or young enough or economically viable population to speak it; and if its habitat is destroyed or displaced by war.

    Invasive languages are promoted by governments as a unifying force or for bureaucracy; or they are essential for work or economic activity, used in television, the radio or movies; or they are fashionable.

    In poor or remote communities, these newcomers work like a virus, able to sicken the local language quickly and kill it within two or three generations.

    "The present 'killers' of languages are English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Swahili, Chinese and Indonesia/Malay," Margit Waas reports in the United States journal Applied Linguistics Forum.

    "About 45 percent of all the people in the world speak at least one of the five main languages: English, Spanish, Russian, Hindi and Mandarin Chinese. About 100 languages are spoken by 95 percent of the world's people and the remaining thousands by only 5 percent." Language death can be charted by numbers.

    Under this "de-acquisition", the community initially speaks the native tongue daily. As the invader takes root, the number of only- native speakers falls and the number of bilingual speakers rises.

    The tipping point comes when the native speakers become a minority with a middle-aged demographic profile. As they age, the language becomes more and more isolated socially, less useful economically and less prestigious and dies with its last few speakers.

    Hauling a language away from extinction is rare. The few successes have been in rich countries with the awareness and resources to combat the problem.

    Abrams and Strogatz, in a study published in Nature, charted the numbers of speakers of Welsh; of Scottish Gaelic, in the remote region of Sutherland; and of Quechua, spoken in Peru. The decline in Welsh speakers will bottom out by 2020; a number of Gaelic speakers is less than a 10th of that 120 years ago; and Quechua will be wiped out by 2030, the researchers say.

    The key to Welsh's survivability lies in government help: street signs in Welsh, TV and radio programming, language courses for adults, and the compulsory learning of Welsh for all children up to the age of 16.

    In other words, status is vital. - Sapa-AFP

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