The world today has more than 6,000 languages. Linguists, however, assert that a few centuries from now, these languages could be reduced to a few hundred. Languages, too, can become extinct, like plants and animals. How do languages become extinct?
There are actually several ways of erasing a language. The simplest, of course, is to kill off the speakers. A government could also ban the use of minority languages and punish those who persist in using them. The British and Spanish Empires, during their heyday, are two examples of centralized states that imposed their languages to conquered peoples.
Of course, there are less drastic, but no less effective, ways for a language to become extinct. Some languages undergo rapid change, or assimilated, and “mutates” into a different one.
Latin, an extinct language, is the ancestor of modern “Romance Languages”—French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, and their variants. Another language “victim” of evolution is Sanskrit, the language of ancient India. Sanskrit’s “children” are the modern Indo-Aryan languages. Intermarriage is also one of the causes of language extinction: a married couple from different ethnic backgrounds may have no common language except the majority language. Another cause is when people move to urban centers from their native speaking-villages for economic reasons and have no choice but to abandon their native tongue and adopt the majority language. Indeed, there are many ways for a language to die.
How does one protect a language, then? And perhaps more important, why?
Ethnologue, a catalogue of languages spoken around the world, lists about 750 extinct and near extinct languages around the world, including 110 in Asia. Languages with names like Aputai (in Indonesia), Alutor (Russian Asia), and Babuza (Taiwan). People who speak these languages are either very old, or have died without passing them on to their children. A lot of languages die that way, in fact.
Linguists are trying to preserve languages in danger of extinction. Some have established foundations that record languages. Philanthropists have also donated funds for projects that document rare languages around the world. A foundation in California pays an indigenous language speaker to teach the language to a young relative, who is also paid. After all, the survival of a language, any language, rests on the next generation.
Language is a complex product of the human mind. Each has a different sound, structure, and pattern of thought. When a language is lost, the result of thousands of years of human creativity is also lost. The culture, literature, how a people sees the world—in short, the record of how a people lived—these are lost to us.
The Philippines is especially endowed with a variety of languages: we have about 170. Compare that to Western Europe, which has a grand total of 45. Our languages make us a culturally and ethnically diverse country. Linguists are having a field day studying our languages, which are as different from one another as Chinese is from German.
Rather than divide us, the diversity of our languages should unite us.
What it all boils down is that no language can really be called superior to others. As any linguist will tell us, different languages have different advantages, and there is no such thing as an all-purpose language. We just have to learn to respect other people’s ethnicity and language.
Instead of prejudice, diversity should teach us tolerance.
Instead of rejection, acceptance.