The Importance of Preserving and Promoting Languages: A Liberal Arts Perspective

I recently wrote about what the death of the last thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) 80 years ago can teach us about the power the liberal arts has to solve wickedly difficult problems. That piece and its focus on extinction led to a discussion with my good friend and Russian language scholar Ben Rifkin about another serious extinction crisis: the dramatic loss of languages we are experiencing around the globe. What follows are our joint thoughts on that problem and the importance of promoting educational practices that encourage thinking across disciplines.

* * * * * * * * * *

A frighteningly high rate of species extinction has become the defining characteristic of the Anthropocene era but species aren't the only things being lost at an alarming rate. Languages are disappearing as well with equally serious consequences.

Linguists cannot say with certainty how many human languages are spoken today. One linguist's language may be another's dialect. For instance, some classify the "languages" of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish as "dialects" of a "Scandinavian language" because they share structures, vocabulary, cultural experiences and because they are generally mutually comprehensible. On the other hand, others classify the "eight dialects" of Chinese as "distinct languages," because, for example, Cantonese, Shanghainese and Mandarin do not share vocabulary and are mutually incomprehensible, even though they share a common orthography. Thus, linguists speculate that there are as few as 5,000 and as many as 9,000 languages.

What's not in question, however, is that the number of languages is decreasing rapidly. Languages, like species, may be characterized as endangered and they go extinct when the last speaker of a language dies. When that happens, the language and culture disappear with little trace, typically because many of the languages we're losing have not left written or recorded evidence behind. Indeed, many extinct languages were only spoken, not written.

Languages become endangered and die out for many reasons. Sadly, the physical annihilation of communities of native speakers of a language is all too often the cause of language extinction. In North America, European colonists brought death and destruction to many Native American communities. This was followed by US federal policies restricting the use of indigenous languages, including the removal of native children from their communities to federal boarding schools where native languages and cultural practices were prohibited. As many as 75 percent of the languages spoken in the territories that became the United States have gone extinct, with slightly better language survival rates in Central and South America, slightly worse survival rates in Australia.

Even without physical annihilation and prohibitions against language use, the language of the "dominant" cultures may drive other languages into extinction; young people see education, jobs, culture and technology associated with the dominant language and focus their attention on that language. The largest language "killers" are English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian, Hindi, and Chinese, all of which have privileged status as dominant languages threatening minority languages.

While there are a few cases of language revival, such as Czech, Gaelic, Hebrew and Navajo, generally languages tend to move in one direction on the spectrum from thriving through endangered to extinct.

Why do these extinctions matter?

When we lose a language, we lose the worldview, culture and knowledge of the people who spoke it, constituting a loss to all humanity. People around the world live in direct contact with their native environment, their habitat. When the language they speak goes extinct, the rest of humanity loses their knowledge of that environment, their wisdom about the relationship between local plants and illness, their philosophical and religious beliefs as well as their native cultural expression (in music, visual art and poetry) that has enriched both the speakers of that language and others who would have encountered that culture.

While some argue that the world would be a better place if everyone spoke English, we believe that the world would be profoundly impoverished by the reduction of distinct languages and cultures.

As educators deeply immersed in the liberal arts, we believe that educating students broadly in all facets of language and culture, as well, of course, in the arts and sciences, yields immense rewards.

Some individuals educated in the liberal arts tradition will pursue advanced study in linguistics and become actively engaged in language preservation, setting out for the Amazon, for example, with video recording equipment to interview the last surviving elders in a community to record and document a language spoken by no children.

Certainly, though, the vast majority of students will not pursue this kind of activity. For these students, a liberal arts education is absolutely critical from the twin perspectives of language extinction and global citizenship. When students study languages other than their own, they are sensitized to the existence of different cultural perspectives and practices. With such an education, students are more likely to be able to articulate insights into their own cultural biases, be more empathetic to individuals of other cultures, communicate successfully across linguistic and cultural differences, consider and resolve questions in a way that reflects multiple cultural perspectives, and, ultimately extend support to people, programs, practices, and policies that support the preservation of endangered languages.

There is ample evidence that such preservation can work in languages spiraling toward extinction. For example, Navajo, Cree and Inuit communities have established schools in which these languages are the language of instruction and the number of speakers of each has increased. Speakers of Hawai'an, Quechua and Saami have also benefited from purposeful efforts to preserve their languages and cultures and to engage the younger generation in their native language and culture.

Simply put, when students have access to a world-class liberal arts education, they have a better chance at becoming citizens of the world, making it richer, more diverse and harmonious.