Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Sustainable Languages

What does it mean for a language to be endangered, and how do languages relate to sustainable development?

Can you read this?

Obviously if you’re reading this you are a speaker of English, native or otherwise.

Do you speak another language?

If you’re an American there’s a 75% chance that English is the only language that you speak well enough to converse in.

If you’re in the minority 25%, chances are that second language is Spanish.

What about Alyawarre, or Pipil, Itza' or Baldemu, Liv or Karaim?

Chances are you don’t speak these languages, because these languages are on the list of endangered languages.

What’s an endangered language? It’s a language that’s at risk of falling out of use, generally because it has few surviving speakers. If it loses all of its native speakers, it becomes an extinct language.

Why does this matter?

Because embedded within language are ways of seeing and of understanding. Learn a new language; gain a new soul says a Czech proverb. Language is a huge part of culture, and identity, and examples abound that when people are ripped from their culture, and they lose that identity their societies cannot thrive, even if they are not ripped from their land or other ways of being. You cannot have sustainable development if you destroy a people in the process.

As the National Geographic Society's Enduring Voices Project notes:

Every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth--many of them not yet recorded--may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain.

In the push towards global connectedness we are leaving beautifully necessary aspects of humanity behind.

For a very long time this loss has only been the concern of linguists and anthropologists, which is why Rosetta Stone, the popular language software, foray into the field of endangered languages is worth noticing. The Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program creates language learning software for endangered languages, allowing indigenous nations to hold onto (or in some cases) regain a linguistic tradition and culture that had been all but lost. The communities hold onto the final product and are free to distribute them as they see fit.

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