People’s perceptions of language differ greatly and consequently, this makes it hard to give a universally acceptable definition of language. However, communication appears as being central to every single definition.
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A language may thus be defined as a huge set of words that are used for the sole purpose of relating with one another in a given setting. A language will usually be shared by individuals who have grown up in a community or a particular area governed by the same customs and values.
It brings out the uniqueness of a group of people and makes life quite interesting especially when we get to see the differences in the way people live and relate with one another. According to Janse (2003), language is a means of solving problems that affect a group of people who speak it.
It offers a way for individuals in a community to stay in touch with and understand one another. This explains why most people will get alarmed at the mention of the fact that language diversity continues to reduce at a very high rate (Janse, 2003).
In the world today, there are thousands of languages that are spoken by people from different corners of the world. Maffi (1998) observed that the total number of languages spoken then worldwide were approximately between 5,000 and 7,000.
Statistics from Maffi’s study also indicated that 32% of these languages were spoken in the Asia, 30% were found in African, 19% in the Pacific, 15% in the United States and only 3% were spoken in Europe (Maffi, 1998).
With the current technological advancements, the world is becoming more of a global village and to stay abreast with the rapid changes communities across the world are forced to make some radical adjustments. The biggest concern, however, is the effect that all these events on the diversity of languages.
Over time some of these languages have lost their originality and usage within the groups leading to reduced language diversity.
Whilst in the past communities mostly lived in closed environments, it is practically impossible for this to happen in the present world due to the many changes that are happening internationally. People are busy moving from one part of the continent to another and as they do so, they carry with them their language, culture and tradition built over time.
One thing that we have to be clear about is the fact that globalization has opened up numerous channels of communication and subsequently, reaching out to one another a cross borders is no longer a problem.
As a result, there is so much interaction that is going on between communities across the world as nations choose to work closely with neighbors so as they benefit each other. Sadly though, this interaction has a detrimental effect on the diversity of languages as well as culture.
Unless a community is very strong, its language and culture easily get swallowed by others that are deemed to be much stronger. Nevertheless, this is a challenge that has to be accommodated as it is no longer possible for individuals and countries to live or operate in isolation.
This paper talks about some forces that are considered responsible for the reduction in linguistic diversity and the erosion of a people’s cultural identity.
Before going further, it may be helpful to try and explain what is meant by language diversity. According to Maffi (1998), a number of definitions have been given for linguistic diversity. Maffi, however, attempts to provide a definition by providing facts about different languages that are spoken all over the world.
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By looking at the way languages are distributed world wide, it becomes easy for one to notice the variation that characterizes languages (Maffi, 1998). Often, the people speaking a particular common language are also bound by cultural values that distinguish them from the rest and define who they are as a people.
According to studies done in this area, the languages that have been found to define linguistic diversity are spoken by only a small number of communities that are made up of indigenous people. Apparently, these are the very languages that are in danger of disappearing.
The threat normally comes from increased pressure to them integrate into others but in the end, they get absorbed by languages of other communities. Once the amalgamation takes place, individuals from the minority speakers often end up dumping their own languages and slowly, they begin to learning the majority languages (Maffi, 1998).
Crawford (1995) carried out a study on language extinction in the United States and pointed out that the problem of language loss is now considered a crisis and a threat to the entire world.
Crawford also observed that by 1995, close to 50% of all the languages in the world were being spoken by only a few elderly people who made very little or no effort at all to make sure that the younger generations learned the languages (Crawford, 1995).
Crawford further explained that over and above the 50% of the languages that were not being taught to the upcoming generations, about 40% of the total world languages were also at risk given that there was an ever increasing reduction in the number of children learning them. Therefore, out of all the languages spoken in the world back then only 10% appeared secure and obviously by now it is even worse (Crawford, 1995).
Generally, even though language death is a threat to all languages, the level of susceptibility greatly differs from one language to another and mostly, languages that have 1,000 or fewer speakers are more at risk than those with a larger number of speakers (Maffi, 1998).
A further challenge for the smaller languages is that the small number of people who speak them will keep reducing and more often than not, the up coming generation usually has very little interest in learning and preserving these languages let alone culture.
It is very common to find that a few survivors from the older generation are the only ones who are able to speak the languages as expected (Maffi, 1998). It has, however, been noted that loss of linguistic diversity does not necessarily imply the death of a language (Janse, 2003).
Janse stated that language loss is often regarded as a social loss and often an indication that an ethnic group lacks confidence in itself. In addition, language death is considered responsible for the loss of cultural diversity (Janse, 2003).
Forces behind the Loss of Linguistic Diversity
Research has indicated that many languages have been exposed to serious challenges that have threatened their existence (Crawford, 1995). According to Crystal (1997), language loss is most prevalent in parts of the world where a huge number of languages are spoken by only a few individuals confined in smaller geographical areas.
A number of factors have been identified as being directly responsible for the reduction of language diversity. Some of these factors are listed and discussed in the following sub sections.
Recent advances in technology have introduced a new culture that has completely changed the way people live (Crawford, 1995). Working, communicating, traveling, teaching and socializing are now all being done very differently. Unlike in the past when people lived and did everything in an almost closed up environment, today we are all part of one big “village”.
The strong community structures that once existed have been exposed to external forces that have really weakened them. Technology has forced people to learn many new things and to accept certain ways of living.
Learning new languages and skills is necessarily if one to continue living in the present world. Without the relevant skills and means of communicating, it becomes very challenging for people to live and work in a world greatly dominated by technology.
People will migrate for different reasons. Some move around looking for better settlements, others such as pastoralists will go around trying to locate suitable places for their livestock and the reasons are many. As people migrate from place to place in search of better things, they are forced to interact with other people.
Language is obviously a powerful means of interaction and it gets really affected by these migration activities. Sometimes a group of people migrating may be forced to learn a new language so as to be able to communicate or it may even be vice versa.
Many times, the majority speakers get swallowed up by the minority speakers who will be compelled to learn the dominant language to guarantee their survival. The minority languages are therefore put aside in favor of the foreign language and this to a large extent jeopardizes the existence of language with minority speakers.
Pressure to be assimilated into the Dominant Cultures
Given that we no longer live in a closed setup and that the way things are done across the world has really changed over time, people are obliged to look for acceptance among the dominant cultures tom ensure that they are not being left behind.
By being integrated with the dominant cultures, a community is made to compromise on language and cultural issues so as to exist. Most of the time the language will be lost since one has to learn the dominant language that is usually needed to cope. The same thing happens to culture and gradually, the beliefs and values that were at one time held by a group of people are lost.
For political reasons, the assimilation into the dominant cultures has always been done in ruthless manner. It has seen governments dictating the dominant language to be used in the school system, in the running of government offices and in the media too. With almost equal zeal, a minority language is looked down upon as being flawed and of a poor standard (Crawford, 1995).
A language may also die if a government operates with oppressive laws that do not respect or look for ways to preserve the minority languages. Policies that do not advocate for the conservation of the small groups will lead to the extinction of languages spoken by them and this will in turn lead to a reduction in linguistic and cultural diversity.
It is therefore imperative that the government of the day takes it upon itself to make sure that the laws that are put in place recognize the importance of all languages regardless of the number of speakers. The government should also create an environment that will help to nurture all languages in an impartial way.
In times of war, if the small population who speak a particular language are wiped out, it only means one thing; the language may also goes with them (Crawford, 1995).
Although it did not completely wipe out the minority group, the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994 is an example that shows how war, whether civil or otherwise, can easily destroy language and culture and eventually linguistic diversity.
The Hutu majority managed to plan and went on execute a huge population of the minority Tutsi. If the Tutsi had their own beliefs and languages that guided them and all of them got wiped out, no one would remain to carry on with the language, beliefs and values they held.
This therefore means that peace among citizens of a nation and between neighboring countries also has a part to play in preserving linguistic diversity.
Shifting to Dominant Regional Languages
This is a common scenario in many parts of the world where individuals try to make adjustments in favor of the language that is considered to not only be dominant but also advantageous in the region (Janse, 2003). English and Swahili are two languages that are commonly spoken in East Africa and with the revival of the East African Community (EAC) all East African countries are being forced to ensure that citizens can speak English.
Countries like Rwanda and Burundi that have had French as the official language for a long time are now forced to reinforce the use of English in their school systems to equip citizens with skills required survive in the region lest they get disadvantaged.
Another example is the use of Swahili language. Even though it is mainly spoken in Kenya and Tanzania and to some extent in Uganda, individuals from other East African countries have to work very hard to learn the Swahili language.
Education systems across the world may also give an impression that some languages are probably more superior compared to others. The language reinforced in a school system as the main one may end up being more popular than others. English for example is a language of choice for most nations and is heavily used in learning institution as the main language of communication.
Even in Africa, a continent with very diverse languages and cultures, most countries have adopted English to be used in the education system. This may give an impression to many people that as long as they are able to communicate in English, they live in various environments and are therefore safe. This is a major problem especially with the younger generation that now doesn’t feel obligated to learn native languages.
Linguistic diversity that is mainly represented by the various indigenous languages is presently subjected to threats that are bound to bring loss to language and the knowledge carried by them (Maffi, 1998).
Language diversity is a key ingredient for cultural diversity and without this diversity it follows that cultural diversity will also be automatically lost (Maffi, 1998). It is therefore very important that deliberate efforts are made to slow down and where possible stop completely, the ongoing trend of reduction in linguistic diversity.
Crawford, J. (1995). Endangered Native American Languages: What is to be done, and Why? The Bilingual Research Journal, 19(1) 1995: 17-38. Web.
Crystal, D. (1997). Vanishing Languages. Washington, DC: Civilization (Library of Congress). Web.
Janse, M. (2003). Language Death and Language Maintenance: Theoretical, Practical and Descriptive Approaches. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Maffi, L. (1998). Language: A Resource for Nature. The UNESCO Journal on the Environment and National Resources Research, 34(4) 1998: 12-21. Web.