What's Lost When a Language Dies

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Half of the world's 6,000 languages will be extinct in the next 50 years.
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Language is something that many of us take for granted. We use it everyday, and more often than not, we can find people who share the same languages as us.

We can communicate in those languages, tell stories, and in the process, partake in an oral tradition unique to our alphabet, vocabulary and culture.

But that's not true of everyone. In some parts of the world, there are only a few dozen people left who speak a language, or in some cases, only one person. In fact, of the 6,000 languages humans speak, half of them will be extinct in the next 50 years.

The new PBS documentary "Language Matters," premiering January 25, looks at some of these languages, and what may die along with them.

The documentary is hosted by poet Bob Holman and is directed by David Grubin. Both Holman and Grubin share their thoughts on language and loss with The Takeaway.

“There’s a very unusual situation in aboriginal Australia,” Holman says. “Charlie Mangulda is the last speaker of Amurdak...When he forgets a word, there’s nobody he can ask what that word is; it’s gone. When that language is gone, it’s gone forever.”

Mangulda has helped keep alive Amurdak, which Holman says is tens of thousands of years old, through poetry.

“They keep their language alive through various forms,” Holman says. “While we were busy making inventions, they were busy working on their languages. One of them is a spirit language that we don’t know how to translate. All we know is that he’s talking to his ancestors in a very special way. It’s part of the way the language has survived.”

Most of the world’s languages that are dying are oral languages that have no written tradition. However, just because these languages have no written existence doesn’t mean they are less advanced.

“These are very sophisticated languages,” says Grubin. "They’re filled with profound myths and stories, they just happen to be oral.”

A changing culture is also responsible for the demise of oral language—humans increasingly live in an era where the preferred medium of communication is through written words (think text messages and emails) and even symbols (think emojis).

“It’s part of the reason these languages are dying out so fast now,” says Holman.

However, even with the shift towards the written word, Holman says that technology is also helping oral languages.

“In a way, the digital consciousness is a kind of synthesis of orality and literacy,” he says. “Now, for the first time, we are able to actually record these oral languages in a way that gives them their fullness.”

Often those who speak these dying languages want to converse in the language of the mainstream culture, but they also feel a deep sense of attachment to their native tongues.

“It’s complicated,” says Grubin. “We can understand why people who speak endangered languages want to join the dominant language—as one person says in our film, ‘It’s for our babies, we want them to succeed.’ On the other hand, there are people in these culture that are so proud of their language.”

Holman says that the answer to this crisis might be simpler than we think: Societies must encourage speakers of endangered language to be multilingual. But doing so is easier said than done.

“People have felt that in order to assimilate, they have to leave their whole identity behind,” he says. “It’s reached such a pitch that we’re losing languages that are actually treasures of humanity—they’re systems of consciousness that connect us to the planet in a way that is unique.”

Listen to the full interview above to hear more analysis from Grubin and Holman.