With colonialism and globalization, speakers of thousands of the world’s languages are abandoning their ancestral tongues at an unprecedented rate. What is lost when these speakers switch to English, Hindi, Russian, or another larger language? And why should we care if smaller languages vanish?
Languages are repositories of thousands of years of a people’s science and art, from observations of ecological patterns to creation myths. The disappearance of a language is a loss not only for the community of speakers, but also for our common knowledge of mathematics, biology, geography, philosophy, agriculture, and linguistics. In this century, we are facing a massive erosion of the human knowledge base.
In The Linguists, we see languages at various stages of endangerment. In the earliest stages, because children want or are forced to speak the language of a dominant group, they shy away from using their ancestral tongue. Soon a language becomes moribund, with no child speakers left. Then, as the speakers age and are not replaced, the language undergoes a process of “invisibilization.” The pool of users becomes smaller and less active. People begin to forget the language. Eventually, it may go extinct.