Posted: November 30, 2012
The futurist: Lost languages
One disappears every two weeksBy Thomas Frey
For most of us, the language we speak is like the air we breathe. But what happens when we wake up and find that our air is going extinct?
According to Oregon’s Living Tongues Institute, one of the world’s languages dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will disappear, as young people abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish.
Researchers estimate that over the last 500 years, half of the world’s languages, from Etruscan to Tasmanian, have vanished. So what do we lose when a language goes silent?
When you mess with a person’s language, you mess with their heritage, their culture and their affinity with their ancestors. Changing language somehow invalidates all of the work of the past, disgracing the culture of their forefathers.
For this reason, I would like to propose the creation of a Global Language Archive, similar, in some respects, to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway which has archived 1.5 million distinct seed samples of agricultural crops from around the world.
Different than some of the online efforts to archive languages that tend to lose much of the dimensionality of culture, I’d like you to think of the Global Language Archive as the “Louvre of Languages” where culture and language collide in a way that all can experience. Let me explain.
Language as a Source of Conflict
When the United States was founded, only 40 percent of the people living within its boundaries spoke English as their first language. Today that number is 87 percent.
Over the years, language has become a hotly debated issue, not only in the U.S., but also in countries around the world.
Most observers tend to explain today’s global political conflicts as stemming from racial, ethnic, religious, or territorial disputes. We rarely see language attributed as a direct and fundamental cause. But that’s not always true.
As an example, in 1989, Slobodan Milosevic ordered Albanians to speak Serbian. They refused. This became one of the primary causes of the war that followed.
When looking at past conflicts, it’s important to look at language as the source of tension: it is often more tangible than race or religion. For example, when you look at a person it can be very difficult to tell what race or ethnicity group they belong to. However, once they speak, much of the confusion disappears.
Over the coming years, the number of languages spoken around the world will decline sharply. At the same time, the more vulnerable a group feels about their language, the greater their devotion to keeping it. As one of the most important elements of a culture’s identity, language can also become incendiary. A group’s language can feel essential to its very existence.
From Bolivia to Malaysia, hundreds of languages around the world are teetering on the brink of extinction—some being spoken only by a single person, according to a new study. Of the 50 native languages remaining in California, none are being actively taught to schoolchildren today. With only 5 percent of the world still speaking 6,500 of today’s “long tail” languages, we are on the verge of losing a significant piece of humanity.
Currently, more than 500 languages are spoken by fewer than 10 people.
The pace of life is quickening. As people’s lives become busier, they have less time to pay attention to things that were important to their ancestors. The new language wars will be an inter-generational battle between the younger generations and their parents and grandparents.
Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker. At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come. His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.