What We Lose When We Lose A Language

How many languages are there? According to the website Infoplease, there are about 6500 spoken languages in the world (https://www.infoplease.com/askeds/how-many-spoken-languages); other estimates are even higher. The most common is Mandarin Chinese. English comes in third, behind Chinese and Spanish, although it is far and away the most popular second language.

The flip side to this is about 2000 languages have less than 1000 speakers, which means they are in danger of being lost forever. If that doesn’t sound like a problem, consider how important language is to culture, and how much culture will be lost when each language disappears. The Endangered Language Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to focusing on the linguistic diversity of urban areas (http://elalliance.org/), says on its website —

“As languages die, thousands of years of accumulated human knowledge, experience, creativity and evolution goes with them. Ken Hale, an MIT professor and language activist once said that losing any one language “is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre”. Our knowledge of prehistorical human migrations and contact relations is largely based upon analysis of relations between languages. It is through language, for instance, that we know that the Polynesians and other Austronesian-speaking peoples of the Pacific began their enormous sea-faring journey from Taiwan roughly 6,000 years ago. “

One of the most linguistically diverse places in the world is actually Queens, New York, with an estimated 800 languages spoken. There you can hear Mustangi (a Himalayan dialect), Vlaski (Croatian-Istrian), Bukhari (a language of Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan), and Gottscheer (a Germanic dialect from what is now Slovenia), among many others.

One of the most linguistically diverse nations is Mexico. Our southern neighbor is home to more than 200 indigenous languages; 68 are officially recognized as national languages. One of those is P’urhépecha, a pre-Columbian language spoken in southern Mexico (and which can also be heard in Queens).

Saving all of these minority languages is virtually impossible, but there are efforts to preserve as many as we can. After all, how much do we lose when they’re gone forever?

Also see “Saving Vanishing Words: Why Queens is the ‘Noah’s Ark of languages’ ” by Harry Bruinius (https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2019/0705/Saving-vanishing-words-Why-Queens-is-the-Noah-s-Ark-of-languages).

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