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January 28, 2015

What happens when a language dies?

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Only one person in the world speaks Amurdak, a nearly-lost language in northern Australia—and one of the more than 3,000 languages that experts predict will disappear by the end of the century.

Technology has made it possible for different cultures to communicate, but several “bully” languages have dominated the conversation, according to Bob Holman, a poet and host of “Language Matters.”

“English and Mandarin and Spanish are gobbling up languages, as people decide they need to have this in order to assimilate into a culture,” Holman said.

Each endangered language hold valuable information about its culture, which could disappear once the language is gone.

“Language is much more than communication. When we talk about it on the surface, that’s what it is. But language is the way we think. And it’s the way it’s been handed down through generations. If you begin to think in another language, that’s fine. But if you have to lose the way that your family has been speaking, that’s not so fine. That’s losing who you are,” Holman explained.

Some small populations are managing to preserve their languages. On Australia’s Goulburn Islands, 400 people speak 10 different languages. Learning a neighboring language is a “sign of respect,” Holman said.

In Wales, the Welsh language has a foothold alongside widely-spoken English, but usage has declined in recent years. The 2011 UK census showed that just 14.6 percent of Welsh residents can speak, read and write in Welsh—a drop from 2001, when 16.3 percent of residents could do so.

Welsh students still have the option to attend a Welsh school and learn the language, an important factor in its survival, Holman said.


Warm up questions
  1. How many languages do you think are spoken in the world? Answer: 6,500. Are you surprised there are that many? Explain your answer.
  2. In order, the most common languages spoken are Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German and French.  Why do you think these languages are at the top of the list?
Critical thinking questions
  1. What role do you think technology plays in the lives of languages?
  2. What are some examples of ways the language you use affects how you think?
  3. There are currently an estimated 6,500 languages, but half will disappear within the next generation if they are not passed down or preserved. What might the consequences of losing half the world’s language be for individuals as well as the global community?
  4. On the Goulburn Islands in Australia, which has a population of 400, 10 different languages are spoken. How do you think this happened?
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