Languages dying out faster than biodiversity

A new study by the University of Cambridge has found that economic growth and prosperity is causing some languages to die out.

The study, published online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B., found that the more successful a country was economically, the more rapidly its languages were being lost.

Economically well-developed regions such as north-western North America and northern Australia were identified as hotspots for language loss, along with countries currently experiencing rapid economic growth, including areas of the tropics and the Himalayas.

The study found that aboriginal languages in Australia are now disappearing from the northern territories. In North America, languages such as Upper Tanana, a language spoken by indigenous Athabaskan people in eastern Alaska, were also at risk of extinction. It was found to have only 24 active speakers in 2009, and was no longer being acquired by children.In Europe too, numbers of speakers of minority languages such as Ume Sami in Scandinavia or Auvergnat in France are rapidly declining.

Lead author, Dr Tatsuya Amano claimed that around 25% of the world’s languages are under threat.

The study however could only glean details about the rate of decline or growth for 9%, or 649, of the 6909 languages surveyed.

Applying criteria used to identify endangered species (including small population size, small geographical habitat range and population change) to huge language datasets the researchers found that levels of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita correlated most with the loss of language diversity.

“As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and educational spheres.

“People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold – economically and politically,” said Dr Amano of the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge.

He emphasised that in the interests of the conservation of human cultural diversity, efforts need to be made to protect these at-risk languages, particularly those found in the tropics and the Himalayas. “These countries are experiencing rapid economic growth, so in the near future these languages will face risk of extinction,” he said.

The work undertaken to protect Welsh in the UK was given as a good example for a successful strategy for language preservation.

Daniel Kaufman, executive director of the Endangered Language Alliance commented on the research: “Environmental factors have been overshadowed by social, political and economic factors.

“We are now seeing a pattern of linguistic diversity that was originally shaped by the environment give way to a pattern that is being shaped by policy and economic realities.

“The environmental pattern at this point is largely historical residue. That is, we will no longer see areas of a particular environmental type attract or spawn language diversity. The economic aspect, however, cannot be overemphasized, as there are places within the language diversity ‘hotspots’ where whole villages are being emptied out due to out-migration.

“Because much of this migration is recent and undocumented, accurate numbers are unfortunately not readily available for statistical analysis.”

Source: BBC News; International Business Times

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