One may be wondering about the difference between an endangered language and an extinct one. The thing is that there is no difference because they both lead to the same result: extinction. A loss of a language is a loss of a large and unique repertoire of human knowledge. An endangered language usually has its last few speakers and it can be documented; however, an extinct one does not have any speakers left and it is gone forever.
There are about 6000 languages in the world and many of them die everyday. According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger database, hundreds of African languages are under threat. The focus in this article will be on two African countries only because it is impossible to cover even 1% of this continent’s endangered languages. In North Africa, Morocco has only few indigenous languages and seven of them are going extinct, leaving the field for Arabic and French to prosper. For example, the inhabitants of Figuig, in the South East of the country, have only between 20000 and 30000 speakers left. The Moroccans who still live in Figuig speak their dialect of Berber, but those who live in big cities are starting to lose it because the second generation does care about learning it. Thus, Figuig’s Berber dialect is one of the seven threatened language varieties in Morocco on the way to extinction.
In Cameroon, there are 36 languages that are endangered. Some of them are already extinct and others have only few speakers who are still alive and most of them are elderly people. The languages that do not exist anymore are Duli, Gey, Nagumi and Ngong. Baldemu had only 3 speakers left in 2003, Bikya and Bishuo had only one last speaker in 1986, Ndai had 5 speakers in 2007, and Njerep had only 4 in 2007. It is possible that some of the last speakers of these endangered languages are dead by now and they took their languages with them as well. For more information on endangered languages, please visit the online UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger database.
Not only linguists, but also ordinary people feel guilty about the extinction of a language. They know very well that they are responsible for that linguistic loss and they are aware, in most cases, that they are not capable of bringing back its soul, especially when it is undocumented. So, what makes a language die?
One of the reasons languages die is that children do not acquire their mother tongues and therefore do not contribute to reproducing them. As a result, as the sizes of their speech communities shrink gradually they ultimately disappear. This neglect of the mother tongue, most often in favor of other languages of high status, is the outcome of perceptions that parents have as- a result of urbanization, uniformity, and assimilation. For example, when a group of rural families move to an urban area, they tend to start believing that social mobility and status can only be achieved by being proficient in the language of the majority. Thus, parents decide not to teach their children their mother tongue because they think this would slow their children’s career paths, hinder their achievement and maintain their status as outsiders. Aiming for assimilation and conformity has its short-term goal, which is success. This also has a long-term effect, which is linguicide.
Worse, some parents have a sentiment of pride regarding this, and try continuously to show off that their children do not speak the mother tongue- as if its knowledge marks their foreheads with a sign of ignorance and failure. This has become prestigious fashion that the upper social class is faithfully practicing in a number of societies. Nonetheless, the blame is on the social, economic and political changes that give power to certain languages over others.
Another reason that pushes languages to die is the lack of change. In order for a language to ensure its survival, it needs to evolve and become flexible according to the needs of speakers. A language needs to equip itself, either by coining new words or by borrowing from other languages, with the vocabulary that will describe the environment around the speakers.
What can be a devastating experience for a linguist who is trying to document a language under a high level of threat is the death of its very last speaker while trying to reach out to him or her. This experience is no different from the experience of a doctor who runs to the operations room to save someone’s life, but seconds make a difference. Another devastating experience is when the last speaker is deaf or does not want to talk in or about the language.
Why is language documentation important? It is important because it makes miracles happen. For example, Hebrew was about to disappear, but the fact that it was documented helped at revitalizing it. Hebrew was only used for religious purposes, as it was the language of the Torah. Eliezer Ben Yehuda taught Hebrew to his son who grew up as the first Hebrew native speaker. Since then people started teaching Hebrew to their children and Hebrew became a language of a nation with thousands of speakers. Another example is the Egyptian hieroglyph. If the Pharaohs did not use language to write about their history, we would never have known about their very advanced civilization and, most probably would not have known how some languages evolved to become what they are today.
We are losing languages everyday and it is our responsibility to teach our mother tongues to our children to maintain a diversified world in terms of language and culture. It is also a must for governments to recognize all the indigenous languages and grant them the right to be preserved.