We Haven't Spoken For All Languages


When I began research for my doctorate 12 years ago, there were 40 speakers of the language I was working on. Now, there are fewer than five, and all are over 70. The language is called Bardi, and it’s one of more than 3000 languages classed as "threatened" or "endangered" in a catalogue released last week by Google.

The catalogue can be seen as evidence of global social change, as a rallying call to preserve the world’s languages, or as a testament to the power of globalisation. It has been pitched as a tool to "save" languages, to "preserve" them, and to "catalogue" them. In some measure, it is all these things. Languages are now being lost at a rate faster than ever before. The catalogue lists just under half the world’s currently spoken languages, and includes all of Australia’s indigenous languages. Most of this diversity is unrecorded and will disappear without trace unless we act now.

As a catalogue, the site is second to none. Nowhere else houses this much information on endangerment. There are local language catalogues, but none has the global coverage of endangeredlanguages.com. The language lists were compiled by experienced regional experts. Furthermore, the site is an unparalleled opportunity to make use of crowd-sourcing to get accurate information about speaker numbers and language use. With each regional director responsible for hundreds of languages, there is need for those on the ground to contribute their own sense of what is happening to their languages.

As a rallying call, the site is also important. Here is a graphic illustration of what we as humans stand to lose when we lose linguistic diversity. Here’s a site which tries to address the problem on a global scale.

For all the attention brought to "saving" languages through this catalogue, however, we must remember that putting an endangerment index next to a name will not stop the shift away from smaller languages. No one can save a language except by continuing to speak it. Moreover, putting the language names on a map of the world will not, of itself, bring us any closer to documenting those languages. A couple of unsubtitled You-Tube clips of Burushaski might be appealing, but it’s not the sort of documentation that will provide either speakers or science with a tangible and durable record of the language.

It can be difficult for someone brought up as a native speaker of English to appreciate what the loss of languages like Bardi or Burushaski means for the world. After all, there’s the allure of the common language. "Why do we need all these languages? What’s wrong with English?" people ask. One might as well ask why we need more than one brand of orange juice, or more than one car manufacturer? Why should language be an area where monopolies rule, when in most other areas of society, pluralism is welcome?

Another argument runs along economic lines — speaking a major language allows greater access to economic resources, and increases efficiency. However, such arguments overlook the fact that there are many ways to reinforce lack of privilege that have nothing to do with language, and that switching languages does not by any means guarantee a path to economic advancement.

Many Australian Aboriginal and Native American groups long switched to English, yet they remain some of the most marginalised citizens in their respective countries. It is more than a little ironic that at the same time that marginalised groups are turning to English monolingualism for economic advancement, the wealthy of Sydney’s Eastern suburbs are sending their kids to Baby Sign Language and Baby French, seeing sophistication and advancement in multilingualism.

Language is a window into the brain and a window into culture. Studying the distribution of the world’s languages lets us look into prehistory and study human movement and contact. In many ways, the linguistic record is more complete and easier to access than the archeological record. But with the loss of languages, we are losing that opportunity to see into our past. For while a pot or piece of jewellery may be buried and later unearthed, once a language falls silent, it’s gone forever.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.