Please Explain: Endangered Languages

Friday, August 07, 2009

More than half of the world's nearly 7,000 languages are at risk of dying out in the next century. On this week's Please Explain, we take a look at what causes languages to disappear and the efforts to document and revive endangered languages around the world. Gregory Anderson, Director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, and Anthony Woodbury, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Texas, join us.


Gregory Anderson and Anthony Woodbury,

Comments [18]

Zeinelabidin Elhassi

A new project to save endangered languages. It's a new approach to the problem.
Here are links to know more about the project :

Oct. 28 2009 04:56 PM
Brian Barker from London England

Concerning the campaign to save endangered and dying languages, you interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign.

The commitment was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September.

Your readers may be interested in Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

Aug. 18 2009 08:31 PM
Jose Antonio Arellano from Chicago, IL

Because a language does not inherently, essentially, entail a set of beliefs (such that a Spanish speaker believes different things than an English speaker), it doesn’t make sense to want to force a Spanish speaker to speak English for no reason. It also doesn’t make sense to want to hold on to Spanish just because it’s the language certain people “should” speak. I learned how to speak Spanish first, then I learned to speak English. My beliefs have nothing to do with the complex differences between the two.

I think that people that speak, say, Spanish should speak Spanish if that’s the language they speak. But if people one day stopped speaking Spanish I find it hard to come up with a reason why I or anyone else should feel sad or concerned.

Aug. 08 2009 02:44 PM
Jose Antonio Arellano from Chicago, IL

David: If your reason for wanting to preserve a language is based on your desire to preserve good works of literature, you’ve lost your interest in the survival of languages because you are interested instead in the survival of great works of literature. If you don’t consider a language having produced a great work of literature, however you define “great” and “literature,” there is no need to preserve that language.

If your wanting to preserve languages is instead based on the desire to preserve our “access to entire different ways of ordering thought and knowledge” couldn’t we in principle have this access to the way a language organizes thought and knowledge by simply studying it? It wouldn’t matter whether anybody actually spoke the language because we could simply keep records of said language’s lexicon and syntax.

But I think that the premise upon which you’re basing your truculent response to Mark and dismissal of Michaels’s work has more to do with the belief that speakers of different languages think differently. Supposing for a second that this is true (I’m not sure it is), why would we want to celebrate difference for difference’s sake?

One reason could be that a different perspective can add to the so-called marketplace of ideas where we can identify what practices and beliefs seem worth maintaining. If that’s the case, however, there would be no reason to hold on to those things that strike us as false and misguided. But, of course, the value we currently place on diversity has nothing to do with identifying practices and beliefs that are better or worse, because, as we all know, languages and cultures are all created equal—all we should do is respect our differences.

Aug. 08 2009 02:43 PM
Yogesh from Pennsylvania

I agree with Kazuo here. If we can build a model, based purely on linguistics, that can predict which languages can coexist and which languages will eat up other languages, we will be able to predict which languages will be threatened in next 2 decades, and thus, work on the problem. 2000 year old languages die off, as the speakers pointed out, in a matter of decades. If we cannot death of a language before we start getting really concerned about it, this whole effort of language conservation will be a very expensive one. Precaution always works.

Aug. 07 2009 02:31 PM
Kazuo from Fairfield, CT

Mr. Lopate had to close the show when the discussion just came to the point for the title. How some languages survive/coexist with another, whereas others do not? What circumstances makes that happen there? I hope you will have another session to touch on this soon.

Aug. 07 2009 02:16 PM
Anna Hyams from USA

Hi, the reason Irish is not more widely spoken is the dreadful way it is taught in schools - yawn inducing literature, emphasis on HAVING to pass the exams rather than speaking it. As always it is the luck of the draw whether you get a good teacher - my son got not one but two fabulous teachers and my daughter got not even one and the results speak for themselves. It would be great to have our own language more widely spoken but that's not going to happen unfortunately. Last but not least Irish people were historically belittled for their use of a peasant language.

Aug. 07 2009 02:09 PM
Kazuo from Fairfield, CT

It too bad that Mr. Lopate had to close the show just about when the discussion was about to get to the most important point for the title. How some languages survive/coexist with others, whereas others do not? What circumstances make differences there? I hope you will have another session to touch on this soon.

Aug. 07 2009 02:07 PM

I have to reply to this David person. So you propose that impoverished minorities should not assimilate so that linguists and "cultural tourists" can marvel over their nuances? What about when your children can't use a computer because no software is written for a market of 2000 people? Or you can find work in any major urban areas because you historical language is only spoken in extreme rural areas. You sound like the kind of person who wants indigenous people to keep living naked in the forest for your amusement while you live in a condo in Manhattan and watch them on PBS. That's a severe bourgeois ignorance.

Aug. 07 2009 01:59 PM

Hey, man, the Manchus ruled China during the Qing dynasty so why can't get upset that the tables turned in 1911...

Aug. 07 2009 01:52 PM
Mike from Manhattan from NYC

What is the status of Ladino, the language of the Jews in Spain before they were driven out in 1492? During the Serbia-Croatia-Bosnia civil wars, I remember reading that the last population of native Ladino speakers were living in Bosnia or on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.

Aug. 07 2009 01:44 PM
David Golumbia from New York, NY

The ignorance of these few quick comments is remarkable. The complexity and differences of language are almost beyond belief. When whole language families die, we lose access to entire different ways of ordering thought and knowledge. How many of those of you who dismiss such concerns off-hand have ever actually looked at the documentation of a few of them?

Their "value" has nothing to do with the kind of "value" Mark talks about. Think of it more like works of literature of deep complexity that are simply being lost because we don't care about them. They don't need to be "equal" or "the same" or anything--just practices of tremendous human value that there is aboslutely no reason to eradicate. Every 10 years a work--or rather an entire set of "works"--of the complexity of the Mahabarata or Finnegans Wake is lost to the world forever. Yes, that seems like a profound loss to me.

No, english is not endangered in this sense--the very suggestion is offensive. When English has 10 or fewer speakers and they are all over 60 years of age, and there is virtually no written or audio documentation of English, we could have a conversation about that.

As is Walter Benn Michaels's entire know-nothing attitude toward this problem. There is nothing in his scholarly career suggesting the kind of authority about this problem that Leonard's guests have.

Aug. 07 2009 01:42 PM
Yogesh from Pennsylvania

A question: Does high density of many languages in small area lead to / predict collective death of all these languages? (case in point- India)

Aug. 07 2009 01:40 PM
christina from new jersey

Would the guest please comment on how successful Ireland has been on reviving Gaelic...once it was outlawed. Now it seems all of my overseas cousins seem to be enrolled in Gaelic courses and have names like Caolon and Aidohn

Aug. 07 2009 01:40 PM

I think Walter Benn Michaels has made an interesting point regarding this fetishism of obscure culture. He notes that in modern times we believe all cultures have equal value. So if all cultures have equal value are they not interchangeable? If the children of one language of of equal value grow up to speak a different language of equal value then what was lost? Either all cultures are not equal or we should stop mourning these losses.

Aug. 07 2009 01:29 PM
Gordon from Union, NJ

English is an endangered language in the United States...and that's just from the native born folks!

lol brb ;)


Aug. 07 2009 01:26 PM

So, languages die.

Aug. 07 2009 12:51 PM
Henry from Brooklyn

Has your language guest ever heard of friesisch, a dialect of Friesian and the local language of the islands of Fohr and Amrum near the German/Danish border in the Northsea? I understand it is one of the closest of the living languages to our original english.

Aug. 07 2009 12:35 PM

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