What we lose when languages die
Languages represent more than vocabulary and grammar, and some people are fighting to save them.
This story was originally reported by PRI's The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.
About half of the 7,000 languages in the world are not being taught to children. Each one is in danger of dying out. That situation represents "a rather haunting backdrop to our age," Wade Davis, explorer in residence for the National Geographic Society told PRI's The Takeaway. The potential death of nearly half of the world's languages is a serious threat to the collective knowledge and culture of the world.
"A language is not just a body of vocabulary or grammar," according to Davis, "it's a flash of the human spirit. It's the vehicle through which the soul of a culture comes into the material world." He goes on to say, "Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind," and many are in danger of being cut down.
Part of the problem is a misperception of indigenous people and cultures, Davis believes. Some people see indigenous cultures as failed attempts at modernity, or failed attempts to emulate Western culture.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," according to Davis. In fact, Davis says that different cultures are "by definition unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? And when they answer that question they do so in 7,000 different voices."
People have to realize that their way of living, their civilization, is not necessarily the best one, Davis asserts. Though Western civilization has achieved a lot, there are still problems. And other cultures have something to contribute. People need to realize, according to Davis, "indigenous people don't threaten the integrity of the nation state, they contribute to it." They don't threaten modernity, they enhance it.
"In every case, they are dynamic, living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces," Davis asserts. But there is hope in that statement. They are threatened, but there are also tremendous efforts to preserve indigenous cultures and languages. Davis tells The Takeaway:
When I say that these cultures are not drifting out of existence, but being driven out of existence, that's an optimistic observation because it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can be the facilitators of cultural survival.
"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what's ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH. More at thetakeaway.org