Languages give us a unique window into how the brain organizes the world around us, so linguists are very interested in how the variation that can be found among them. (You can visit sites like Ethnologue for information about what we’ve sound so far.) Unfortunately, we haven’t documented all of them.
Right now, languages around the world are dying at an alarming rate. While many lay-people embrace the idea that we could all speak just a handful of languages, linguists are more than a little bit horrified by that idea. Sure, decades of linguistic research tells us that there would still be considerable variation to study even if the entire world did start speaking English (or some other language that is not in any danger of disappearing). But it’s a little like telling a biologist that they can only study one kind of animal from now. In fact, it might be worse, since languages don’t leave much fossil evidence behind. Most of them have never been written down.
There a number of reasons that linguists are so concerned:
- Consider, for example, how often new variation in one language is treated as a pathology. Understanding the structures of different languages helps linguists (and speech pathologists, neurologists, and other cognitive scientists) to differentiate between difference and disorder.
- Think about how much of our language is metaphorical. When we lose a language, we lose the opportunities to compare how those metaphors shape our judgments. To some extent, knowing about another language (even if you don’t speak it fluently), keeps you from being limited to the labels and metaphors of your own.
- Opportunities for understanding the wide variety of human pattern-recognition strategies disappear when we lose a language.
- No translation is perfect, and cultural information disappears with a language. If you want to understand how a group functions in the world, looking at what they talk about and how they talk about it is a good way to go. When we lose the last speakers of a language, even if it is a documented language, we lose people with the cultural information to most accurately interpret it, so we lose a piece of human history.
- In many cases, language rights are at stake. Many people would like to believe that the freedom of speech is a fundamental human right, so why wouldn’t the freedom to use your mother tongue be included under that umbrella. This point is particularly poignant to linguists given the issues with culture and translation outlined above. If a language is dying because people are either forced or coerced to abandon it, this is a recognized human rights issue. (See, for example, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.)
In recent years, the field has gotten better at advocating for indigenous language rights and at raising awareness for our attempts to preserve endangered languages. Some very notable efforts include those by Drs. K. David Harrison and Gregory D.S. Anderson. The two have produced (and starred in) the film The Linguists, which debuted at the Sundance Film festival and has since been featured on PBS. They also run a you-tube channel, where you can explore a wide variety of languages that were nearly lost to history.
They have also founded the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, which has teamed up with the National Geographic Society to promote their Enduring Voices project. Most recently, they have also announced a partnership with Google, where they are collaborating with the tech company on The Endangered Languages Project. You can help too, either through volunteering with Living Tongues or through their adopt-a-language sponsorship program.