Date: Mon 01 Sep 2003 - 19:56:03 GMT
Thousands of languages are facing extinction
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
It is a linguistic loss whose equivalent in biodiversity is the mass
extinction 65 million years ago of innumerable species, including
The website www.ethnologue.com, 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
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
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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