Why are languages going extinct?

09 September 2014

Interview with

William Sutherland, University of Cambridge

Nearly 7000 distinct languages are currently spoken around the world, but studiesmouth suggest that up to 90% of them are in danger of disappearing by the end of the Century, making them more threatened than animals or plants. Now, biologist William Sutherland has discovered that the same criteria used to highlight endangered animal species can also identify threatened languages, meaning we can now spot them more easily and take steps to preserve them, as he explains to Chris Smith... 

William -   There are 6,900 languages around the world and curiously, they're distributed in the same sort of patterns as where the richest abundance of animals are.  So, areas where there are most birds and most mammals are areas where there are most languages as well.  So, the areas that are tropical, the areas that are mountainous, the areas that have lots of forests, both have lots of languages and lots of different bird species and mammal species.

Chris -   Why do you think that is?

William -   Because there are similar processes that cause speciation with different species evolving and languages to evolve.  So, if you have areas that are very stable, you can have a small population of humans living in that area persistently, isolate some other individuals and developing their own language.  And similarly, you can have species occurring in isolation, evolving from other species and creating greater diversity.

Chris -   And is this 6,900 plus languages actually stable?  Are the numbers saying about the same or are there new languages springing up all the time or are languages being lost?

William -   Well, languages do arise, but most languages in the world are declining and very many of the languages are showing declines and sometimes quite rapid declines.  So English for example is increasing rapidly, but many other languages are declining.

Chris -   So, what was the question you were trying to address with this?

William -   What we were interested in is looking at the patterns of change of languages across the world.  There've been lots of people sort of producing a lot of hand waving arguments as to how they're changing and we wanted to apply quite a rigorous approach.  And conservationists have an approach where they classify species according to how threatened they are.

Chris -   So, the same criteria that could be used to define whether or not a species is endangered can also tell us whether a language might go extinct.

William -   Absolutely.  You can apply exactly the same process.  If you do so, it turns out that languages are more endangered than birds are or mammals are as a group.

Chris -   What are the big determinants of whether a language in an area will survive or whether it's going to go extinct?

William -   Languages that have a small population size seem to decline much more rapidly.  And part of that makes a lot of sense, that if a language is only spoken by a few speakers then it becomes less attractive to learn.  And so, the decline gets even more rapid.  So, if a population gets small, the rate of decline gets even faster, and so, it gets smaller and smaller, and then they go extinct.

Chris -   In the same way, because we know when we look at animal populations, biologists talk about there being a threshold population size where if the population dips below a certain size, it's probably going to be curtains for that species.  Do you see the same thing with languages then that if there's not more than a certain threshold number of people speaking that language, it probably isn't going to last beyond that generation?

William -   Exactly, right.  So, as languages get scarce then they will become scarcer and scarcer.  It's exactly the same for species and for languages.

Chris -   And will there any areas around the world that were real hotspots?  We know there are hotspots of species extinction.  Therefore, do you see areas where languages are similarly threatened and do they overlap?

William -   There are some areas that are hotspots to extinction.  So, northern Australia has a lot of languages that are right on the edge of extinction, northwest United States and Canada, similarly have a cluster of languages that are very scarce and declining.

Chris -   Could something be done to preserve languages in the same way we're saying that species are important for biodiversity, they make the world richer?

William -   You can record the languages.  There's a lot of interest in doing that.  And also with the internet, there are various people that are speaking these languages on the internet.  And that they're managing to speak with a few other speakers of that language elsewhere and they're being brought together through modern technologies.

Chris -   Is it easy to preserve a language?  I mean, I know you said you can record things, but there are subtleties in language which if you're not a speaker, you won't just be able to pick up on, just by listening to a recording of someone talking through some of the words.

William -   Absolutely.  So, you'll retain some of that information, but you won't retain all the subtleties.

Chris -   But why is it important?

William -   It's an important part of the global culture.  A lot of information is stored in those languages, a lot of knowledge is stored in those languages, and there tends to be a pattern that when people lose languages, they often regret it a generation or two later.  And they see that as part of their culture that has disappeared and they very much regret having lost.  So, they see it as an important part of their identity, an important part of something they're proud of, and they're very sad when it goes.

Chris -   So in other words, although it may seem trivial to lose a language, there may well be social ramifications that will cross generations.

William -   Absolutely, and lots of information is stored.  So, lots of information about the species and culture and the mythology, and the songs also go and the language goes.

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