TED Conversations

Janielle Guzinski

Graduate Student - Landscape Architecture,

This conversation is closed.

What will happen when the world speaks only a few languages?

Increasing levels of globalization are causing a few languages to spread at unprecedented rates. But many less common languages and their associated cultures are going extinct. Programs exist for the conservation of species and habitats at risk of extinction, but very little attention is given to language extinction. Some scientists are suggesting that there are more languages at risk of extinction than bird or mammal species

Does language extinction really matter? It is hard to imagine how the loss of a language halfway around the world would impact your life, and diversity in language makes it difficult to understand one another. But should that diversity be preserved?



Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Jun 5 2013: I think that it would be great if everyone spoke the same language. There are however many things that can be expressed in many languages that other languages can't express (or express in the same way). If/when they are lost humanity looses a way of expression that we may never regain.
    Further more understanding language is really important for history scholars, to help us understand who ewe are and where we came from.

    So my position is this: it's going to be a great cultural loss and a gain in effective communications. I just hope that we record every language we can before they go extinct.

    Have you read the Wiki? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_death
    • thumb
      Jun 5 2013: I think it would be a cultural loss to lose languages. However, you can't force people to speak a language they don't want to. We should record as much as we can of current languages in order to preserve them for historical value. I could see many languages persisting for a long period of time, especially when the languages are characteristic of a large country. But we may see a more universal language develop in the long-term that represents a combination of some of the most common languages.
      • Jun 6 2013: Ryan I agree that it would be a cultural loss for the world if individual languages were to disappear. This BBC article from 2009 addresses that topic. Globalization has open up a world of opportunity but it also puts cultural identities at risk unless people make an effort to retain their cultural identity.

        However, I did find this article interesting because it aludes to the importance of knowledge of a second language that may well be universal in order to facilitate social mobility and modernization as they put it.

        • thumb
          Jun 6 2013: I agree with you Sonja, the globalization of the planet will make it increasingly important for people to communicate. 100 years ago we still thought as nations but now we must think "globally." In order to solve the worlds problems communication between all of the nations is important.
    • Jun 7 2013: Jimmy, in response to the Wiki link you shared on language death, did you try the hyperlink about language attrition, "the loss of a first or second language or a portion of that language":

      "The term 'First Language Attrition' (FLA) refers to the gradual decline in native language proficiency among migrants." In the process, the common language of that country would slowly become integrated into the migrant's use. I am a migrant, 'imported' to Holland from the states, and experience this first-hand.

      Perhaps this is more the direction we are going, linguistically?
      • thumb
        Jun 7 2013: Yes, I fully agree that that language attrition has it's parts to play. (I checked it now, very interesting)
        But I think that it's all going to be an altered version of English that continue to be to be the dominant language in the world. And that's because English happened to be the biggest and most spread language when world-wide communications became available. It's also the best way of finding viable information, not that many research papers made in Swedish compared to English. So curious minds tend to learn it.

        Not to mention medias part in it, Hollywood films being the biggest consumer option in the world for movies, mostly in English. And most music that is listened to is in English, many don't understand the words that they are singing but they get a little and that puts English in their language.

        The world's most famous word is "Okay".

        But with better and better technology we're able to record and understand languages better and learn them when we want to. Just look at all the computer software like Rosetta Stone that is out there with recorded languages, those aren't going away.
        Some people (quite a lot when you think about it) know how to read Hieroglyphs today.

        But yeah, language attrition swallows the really small ones while all the bigger languages will be preserved in different types of recordings while they are spoken less and less.

        Mandarin and Spanish (or versions of them) will probably stick around for quite some time though.
        • thumb
          Jun 7 2013: Even as language attrition is occurring, I find it interesting to consider the pieces of language that have been conserved over time. Maybe there are some types of words or ways of expression that are simply too important or intrinsic to the human condition to be lost. The example that I'm thinking of is the word for "Mother" - in a great number of wildly different languages it begins with a sound that babies tend to make when they put their lips together as though for nursing. According to this news article:
          the root "ma," meaning "breast," may be the most widespread word in the world. For that matter, now that I'm thinking about it, that is also the same sound used by baby calves when they are hungry.
      • thumb
        Jun 7 2013: Thanks for the link, Lizanne.

        From my personal experience - I live in a country where the community, or one of communities I am a part of is bilingual - speaking both Polish and Norwegian at different levels. Most of the members of the community came here in their mid twenties, have their families and friends in both countries and partners from either one or the other. Some of them do not have partners. From my observation language attrition that you brought up is an issue for those members of community who came here as children or teenagers, but it's not on morphological or syntactic level, but on cultural level. You cannot share all of the cultural or semipolitical jokes or comments with them as it is meaningless, they can understand the words or lines, but not read between them and/or react with laughter as a result. They were simply never exposed to either literature, films or phenomena that are the base for some of the sociolinguistic trends and have little or no cultural adherence to them in their, let's say, memory, which makes understanding of some things difficult.

        Conversely, the members of the community that came here later and do not have the experience of childhood/teenage years in this country may have difficulty understanding some of the Norwegian jokes, comments or trends that are native or a natural part of experience of those who came here as children/teenagers. Those experiences build the language, or the sociolect that they have and share. Level of education plays a role here as well, but that's not what I'm referring to, just linguistic dynamics.

        All this cannot be compared to what happened to Gaelic, it's actually rather new - attrition of cultural aspects of some parts of the language. Or even deletion. But who knows what will happen to the very language in the future, I mean the language on the level of morphemes/syntax, not semiotic entities (forgot the term...)
      • thumb
        Jun 7 2013: Hi again,

        Just another thought and a memory - language attrition among the migrants can be effectively battled especially if the migrants were moved somewhat against their will - either had no choice, were left behind due to geopolitical trends (like moving of borders etc.), or had to escape, seek asylum, were sent to a foreign country as a punishment.
        All this may lead to strenghtening of emotional ties with country, culture and language of origin and consequently - the need to preserve it in the community, sometimes in secret, sometimes in the open depending on the situation.

        Example - I remember visiting a neighbouring country of Lithuania at the age of about 13. That was before the internet and before gaining access to TV or radio from other countries was as easy as it is now. The place where my sister and I were staying had a Polish community that had a strong goal and dedication to the goal which was preserving the native language (Old Trakai just outside of Vilnius, nice place with a castle).

        I remember being stopped in the streets by seniors, one of them began to cry saying "Polish children came to visit us!"... and her Polish was better than the Polish of some of the children in our group. The pronunciation was a bit "non-modern" and influenced by Lithuanian, but still... It was the language of literature. I remember other interesting episodes as well that support the idea at the top of this comment - language attrition can be battled if the will is there.
        And I paid for the trip myself after earning money working in the fields in West Norway! :) Just bragging, probably ;-)

        Best wishes.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.