Like living beings, languages are born, live and die. But the problem is, many of them just die, and at a dramatically increasing rate. Linguists estimate that there are about 6,000 languages on Earth, and half of them will disappear within the next one hundred years. That is about 30 languages disappearing each year. Among the 1,000 languages existing on the American continent, about 90% will disappear. Another figure: 96% of the world population speaks only 4% of the existing languages.
Languages have always disappeared, but what is new today is the dramatically increasing mortality rate. This is due to globalization, urbanization, and television (but it is interesting to note that Internet plays a rather positive role, by allowing more diversity).
Most of the languages today are not even described, and they will probably disappear without leaving any trace. Linguists are working to strive to describe them, working with the last speakers to draw up grammar books and dictionaries, but it’s a painstaking work, and linguists have to be in the field.
To know if a language is endangered or not, we don’t have to consider the number of speakers, but rather the way the language is passed on, the number of children who learn it naturally. For a language to stay alive, it needs a community with a cultural life, with its own traditions, its tales, its prayers…
Bilingual schools are sometimes double-edged, as they don’t pass on this cultural heritage and can sometimes harness children insidiously, taking advantage of the situation to pass on the dominant language to them.
These days, we are very concerned about the extinction of certain animal species. This is a very popular concern, but we are much more hard pushed to worry about the languages that disappear, and that take a part of human heritage with them. When a language disappears, knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is lost too.
We must therefore try to conserve this diversity, not be afraid of bilingualism, and remember that a human being can easily speak two or three languages. Multilingualism is, in fact, the most wide-spread situation in the world. For now…