Dying languages of the world: where they exist and why they should be saved

This makes for quite a shocking statistic, especially as it gives an indication of just how many languages there are out there. It’s often assumed that there are only one or two main languages per country, but in fact, some countries are home to hundreds of languages – Papua New Guinea, for example, is now estimated to have over 800!

The article states that of the 7,000 –odd languages spoken around the world, somewhere between 60-80% are not yet documented. Unfortunately, it’s often the case with solely oral languages that when the people who speak it die, so too does the language.

Whilst there can be interesting structures within the language that it’s a shame not to have access to any longer, the main regret when languages die out is that the detailed cultural knowledge that these languages embody also disappears. Many of the cultures that use undocumented languages live in remote areas of the globe, which have not been extensively explored over the years, and which we therefore still know little about. These include places within Alaska, South America, India and the South Pacific, for example.

You may be forgiven for thinking that with access to remote areas much easier these days, the language and culture of these peoples might be easier to pass on than previously, but in fact the opposite seems to be true. As outside influences creep in to traditionally closed cultural peoples, and globalisation takes hold, they are being forced to learn global languages to be able to live in and communicate with the modern world. If it’s easier and more useful to learn the likes of English or Spanish, it’s natural that the usage of traditional, local languages will suffer.

The article on the Wall Street Journal website refers to a book compiled by K David Harrison and his team of linguists who traveled around the world to interview the few remaining speakers of languages all over the world.  Read the full article for details of places visited, and for a video to accompany the piece.

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