Imagine the following languages:
You have 13 consonants in a row! The language, Nuxalk (pronounced “nu-halk”), spoken in British Columbia in Canada, has the word clhp’xwlhtlhplhhskwts’ which means “then he had had in his possession a bunchberry plant.”. How on earth do they pronounce it?! (“Nuxalk”, Wikipedia
You don’t say, “my left arm”. Instead, you say, “my north / south / east / or west arm”, depending on your actual orientation! Speakers of Warlpiri, in Central Australia, use the cardinal directions, an absolute frame of reference. (Levinson and Wilkins, 2006)
You must use one of 10 genders! Yuchi in Oklahoma, USA, uses “six for Yuchi people (depending on kinship relations to the person speaking), one for non-Yuchis and animals, and three for inanimate objects (horizontal, vertical, and round)”! (The Guardian, 2008)
These are just three of the strange and wonderful ways the world’s 7000 or so languages describe the world. And these are vanishing voices – these languages are disappearing fast! This article looks at why this is happening, what we are losing, and one thing that can be done about it.
Half the world speaks just 25 big languages: Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Bengali. The other 50% speaks all the 6975 or so languages! [Check Graphic — 1] So, there are lots of small languages out there. For example, Aiton (1500 speakers), Muot (930), Zangskari (12,000) – all three are Indigenous (or Tribal) languages from India. (Do note that we have only approximate numbers for many Indigenous languages!)
Everywhere, these small languages have been in contact with the bigger ones around them. Historically, rarely has this contact been peaceful. Speakers of big languages have come with modern weapons in search of slaves, natural resources, and land. Indigenous peoples who survived (many, many were killed) have had to give up their language and culture (with their lands). Their children are forbidden to speak their languages in school, and the government and the courts do not speak their languages either. With no alternative, Indigenous speakers shift to dominant languages. It is no wonder that of the 424 languages spoken in India (according to Ethnologue), 131 are endangered, that is, it is “no longer the norm that children learn and use this language.”
What are we losing when we lose a language? As our initial examples show, each language is a unique way of looking at the world. But here is another thing: look at the world’s biodiversity hotspots [Check Graphic — 2]; for example, Papua New Guinea (839), Indonesia (704), Arunachal Pradesh (90). The numbers in brackets are the number of languages spoken there: biodiversity hotspots correlate with linguistic diversity! The biocultural link here is that the knowledge to sustainably manage this biodiversity is encoded in these Indigenous languages. So, for even purely “selfish” reasons, the world must make sure that Indigenous languages flourish.
It is also a matter of ethics, is it not? Linguistic human rights are as important as other rights. And the freedom to practice one’s own culture includes its languages. Then there is the matter of education. Tons of research (and common sense!) tells us that children learn best in the language they know best. To deprive a child of that is cognitive violence. For society, the cost is twofold. One, in repeated years, school dropouts, and low economic productivity – a massive waste of resources! And two, citizens poorly prepared for democratic participation.
So, what can be done? Many things, but schooling is clearly one place to start. Bringing mother tongues into schooling will make all education more effective. It will revitalize Indigenous languages as modern-knowledge languages while its speakers continue to take pride in their cultural heritage. Meanwhile, apart from learning in their own languages, children also need high-quality instruction in the other languages that they need to know – the regional language and English, for example. This is at the heart of Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education (Mohanty et al., 2009).
By itself, this is not enough. The rights of Indigenous peoples need to be shored up in many other domains. But whatever strategy societies take, education is a key component. Only then will generations to come continue to appreciate these diverse ways of being human!
Levinson, S. C., & Wilkins, D. P. (Eds.). (2006). Grammars of space: Explorations in cognitive diversity. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO97805114867
Mohanty, A. K. (2009). Multilingual education for social Justice globalising the local. In Orient Blackswan eBooks. http://www.tove-skutnabb-kangas.org/pdf/Multilingual_Education_for_Social_Justice_Globalising_the_Local_Ajit_Mohanty_Minati_Panda_Robert_Phillipson_Tove_Skutnabb-Kangas.pdf
Reporter, G. S. (2017, September 20). Peter K Austin’s top 10 endangered languages. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/aug/27/endangered.languages
Wikipedia contributors. (2023). Nuxalk language. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuxalk_language#Syllables
About the author:
A. Giridhar Rao is a part of School of Education at the Azim Premji University.