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Language Extinction and the Social, Political, and Linguistic Consequences that Can Occur

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One World, Many Languages:

An Analysis of Language Extinction and the Social, Political, and Linguistic Consequences

As the population of the world is getting larger, human beings are perhaps for the first time coming closer together than ever before. The advent of the internet has brought together groups of people that would have otherwise never spoken to each other and has also created a platform for the mutual exchange of ideas across cultural-linguistic barriers. Yet with this positive new interaction, as well as widespread globalization there is an often overlooked and ignored catastrophe occurring before our eyes – the extinction of language. This concept is not simply referring to the extinction of one or two ancient languages, rather to the ever-present extinction of literally thousands of languages belonging to millions of speakers. Even with this alarming idea, many are still not convinced that this is a problem and some are even praising this shocking destruction. Through an in-depth analysis of the social, political, and linguistic implications of language extinction one can come to understand the importance of stopping this growing trend.

When one thinks of the extinction of language perhaps the first thought that comes to mind is that of the “dead” languages such as Latin and Greek, but the term is now used to refer to modern languages that are disappearing rapidly. According to the National Geographic Society, over the last 500 years about half of the world languages have disappeared. Although this statistic is slightly alarming, the real shock is the fact that in the next 100 years it is expected that “more than half of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to die out,” according to the same study. Unlike many other phenomena, language extinction can be both sudden as well as gradual. Certain catastrophes such as genocide or war are known to extinguish languages but there is also the felt, “pressure to integrate with a larger or more powerful group,” according to the Linguistic Society of America. Although the source of this pressure has varied in the past, it is now coming from the West, and particularly the English language, but also from the East through the Chinese language. Perhaps the greatest indicator of the “dominant” language, or the one that is causing the widespread extinction, is related to economics and business.

The West has long been idolized by the world as the land of economic prosperity and the desire for success and assimilation on behalf of the rest of the world has come at a high price for those who do not speak English. For non-English speakers who are forced to participate and compete in the global business world the first step is to learn the language and begin to assimilate in order to succeed (Baines 2012). Often this assimilation is not as simple as learning a couple words in the language, rather success is seen as learning the culture and ways of life of the dominant language. For those, such as English speakers, who have not yet needed to assimilate to a dominant language this change might seem miniscule but there are great cultural implications for those that must undergo this transition. As most second language learners know, the greatest way to learn a new language is through practice but if this practice is extensive enough one language (here, English) overpowers the other and prevails. The reason that this occurs is because the speaker, at the time, sees the new language as more valuable economically than the old language and therefore the process of assimilation is encouraged.

Although this statement seemingly places the responsibility of assimilation and therefore language extinction on the part of the speaker, this is not accurate. The responsibility for glottophagy in fact, rests heavily on the speakers of the dominant language, therefore making them the oppressors and those that speak the extinct languages the oppressed. By demanding that all others adapt to the language and therefore ways of life of their dominant language, the oppressors are therefore leaving the oppressed no choice but to either reject their native language or have no opportunity of participating in the global business market. Understandably, given the current economic situation most non-native English speakers are more than willing to learn the dominant language because feeding their family becomes a priority over fighting for the immediate survival of their native tongue.

Even with these initial implications there are still those that believe that the extinction of language is not only unproblematic, but also valuable. As mentioned, the internet has helped in bringing more people together than ever before and oddly enough most of the content published on the internet is assumed to be in the English language. The fact that so many individuals are able to communicate effectively may be attributed to the fact that one main language is used and therefore it is helpful to encourage linguistic assimilation. When individuals are able to communicate without great difficulty cultural differences can in fact be shared and ultimately appreciated by both parties and therein great learning also occurs. Having one main language can also lead to greater interpersonal relationships in the individuals who would never otherwise communicate are able to share joined interest and therefore foster strong interpersonal bonds. Some also believe that language extinction is socially valuable because there is potential for less discrimination based on linguistic differences if there is one core language observed and used by everyone. There appears to be a certain social stigma associated with linguistic differences in that a language barrier is often seen as intimidating or impossible to break. Therefore, some believe that the extinction of language can ultimately break down this barrier and more people will communicate with those they were too timid to communicate with before. Lastly, in terms of education many worry about the effects of “language deprivation” because so much valuable material is currently published in English and requires the fluency of this dominant language (Phillipson 5).

In addition to the possible social benefits, some also believe that language extinction is beneficial in terms of politics. The fact that there is a dominant language can be powerful in that if a population needs political assistance they can communicate their needs easier than if there is a language barrier. Often with oppressed populations, especially in Africa, it is difficult if not nearly impossible for the oppressed to ask for help or assistance because they have no linguistic connection to the dominant language communities that can help them. Furthermore, with the extinction of language and subsequent creation of a dominant language more political opportunity is offered to those who would not otherwise have it. If someone wants to become a prominent world leader they must learn the prominent language and their supporters must speak it as well. Considering the wealth of possible political ideas or suggestions that are missed because of language barriers, it is possible to see why having one common language could help valuable and insightful leaders come to power that would have otherwise not had the opportunity.

Lastly, proponents of language extinction argue that there are linguistic advantages of having one main language. The shift to one language will interest linguists because there is possibility for the study of this assimilation. Furthermore, if linguistic barriers are out of the question then it leaves room for linguists to focus on more important concepts such as how to the dominant language can be further developed and even expanded to create more words to describe concepts or emotions that cannot be described yet. The fact that many languages will turn into one can also be seen as a benefit because the main language has potential to be very rich due to the possible influences of the extinct languages.

Although these arguments may seem compelling to some, they are in fact not valid enough to support the proposition that language extinction is positive. First, in terms of social factors the majority actually leans in favor of multi-linguism and shows the great negative impact of language extinction. In terms of culture, language reveals so much more than anthropological or scientific data could suggest. For example, the Pirahã people in South America, in addition to many other cultural differences, have one less consonant for women than they do men (Everett 2012). If the Pirahã simply assimilated into the English language and their language became extinct, then we would never be able to analyze this linguistically-based cultural difference. Furthermore, in terms of interpersonal relationships linguistic differences should interest rather than deter potential relationships. If language extinction was successful and society only had one language then there would, quite frankly, be so much less to talk about. Children would have even less interest in their heritage if all of their ancestors spoke the same language and perhaps the only ancestral interest that would manifest would be in those who spoke a language other than English. Lastly, language extinction would have a negative social impact because individuals would lose a sense of identity and individuality. As the world becomes smaller in communication gaps but bigger in population size, individuals are more likely to feel like they are no different than others and have nothing special to contribute. If languages were maintained and there was not one central language, diversity would be maintained in an increasingly homogenous society, which would benefit everyone.

Politically, the extinction of language is also a very detrimental process. The political system established on English-language rules is quite flawed and has dangerous implications if applied globally. There is a great possibility that other languages could offer greater political terms that could not only help those in the political sphere articulate their thoughts better but also help those that politics affects – everyone. Furthermore, some argue that having one language will result in less conflict due to linguistic differences in the political sphere. This argument is flawed in that using the example of the United States, one language is maintained and there is still incredible conflict and misunderstanding. Ultimately, having one central language will not result in less conflict but if we were to incorporate and encourage various languages in the political process perhaps we would actually see more politicians striving to work together rather than conniving against one another.

Lastly, the belief that language extinction is beneficial in the linguistic sphere is completely flawed. The core goal of linguists is the study of language and if there is only one language then there will be even less for them to study. Furthermore, the study of linguistic differences is pertinent to understanding a language as a whole and creating connections between languages enables us to unify the human race in a culturally responsible way. In addition, the rate of language extinction is so high that it is incredibly challenging for linguists to record all aspects of a particular language on the verge of extinction. That being noted, some languages would inevitably “slip through the cracks” of this process and never be heard about again even though they may have heavy societal value in the future.

Although the controversy surrounding this critical topic is heated, it is also important to step away from varying viewpoints and analyze the implications of living in a world where language extinction is acceptable and encouraged. First, it is important to address the misconception that language can simply be written down, recorded, and then maintained forever like some type of museum artifact. The fact of the matter is that many languages, especially those that are critically endangered only have a couple, if not only one native speaker left (Kamalani 2012). Most native speakers of endangered languages are elderly and therefore less likely to survive long enough for extensive studies or research. In addition, it is important to note that language extinction is not only plays an impact in the academic world of linguistics but also in other important academic areas. For example, in indigenous or rural areas it is often those who know the native language that are able to describe specific plants, their properties, and risks/dangers. Without the help of these individuals the academic area of science would take a strong blow with the loss of such empirical knowledge.

With the problem identified and the counter-arguments addressed, the next step in analyzing the impact of language extinction is to identify the next steps in protecting linguistic rights and preventing one dominant language from monopolizing the entire globe. The first step in the preservation of endangered languages, after acknowledging the problem, is to encourage speakers to continue their study of the language. It is well known that bilingual students possess more academic success than those who are monolingual and this encouragement of the education of endangered languages will not only benefit the language but also the pupils. In addition to speakers taking action, linguists should also take an interest in the preservation of these languages. Often times, due to the power of the oppressor, the oppressed native speakers are held back from taking a stand and preserving their languages. Linguists should study and record common patterns and grammatical structure of such languages to not only document them but also offer a future plan for implementation of the language in the case of extinction.

Still, the preservation and protection of language should not solely rely on the speakers and linguists, rather every individual should care about this important cause. Communication is an essential part of everyday life, so common in fact that we almost forget about how important it is in society. By systematically and strategically taking away another individual’s ability to communicate and replacing it with a more prestigious model we, the dominant culture, are not only cheating ourselves out of learning preserving a valuable language and culture but also stripping away from these individuals that which their ancestors worked tirelessly for. The fact that something as important as the extinction of language, something that men and women have died over, could simply be swept under the rug as an unimportant issue is a travesty and something that must be stopped immediately. Although it may seem like a daunting task to protest this ever growing crisis, every step helps and often the most valuable are the smallest coming from concerned individuals who rightfully value individuality and the importance of ancestral heritage and therefore the powerful impact that language diversity can have on the future.

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