In today’s Finshots, we tell you how social development and economic growth can threaten languages that may be on the brink of extinction.

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The Story

The Chakaliyas are a tribal community living in a remote colony of Kerala’s Kookkanam locality. And they’re grappling with a serious problem. Their mother tongue Madhika is dying.

Madhika is a language that sounds like a blend of Telugu, Tulu, Kannada and Malayalam. It has no script. And at the moment there are only two people left in the community who can fluently speak it. That means they’ll probably take the language to their grave and then it will go extinct.

And it’s not just Madhika that’s under threat. Ganesh Devy, a literary critic and chairperson of the People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), says that 4,000 of the world’s approximately 6,000 documented languages could potentially face extinction.

So why is this happening, you ask?

These days, it’s economic development.

But the crux of the matter dates back to the days of colonialism.

At some point between the 1500s and the 1960s, the European imperialists controlled parts or all of the world’s countries, sparing only 5 (China, Iran, Japan, Nepal and Thailand). And in many cases, they exploited the populations of indigenous people to create colonial societies. Their rights were stripped away. For instance, in the United States, until the mid-1900s, Native American children were often prohibited from speaking their languages.

You can imagine what that would do to native tongues, right?

But as colonies faded away and newly independent countries began to focus on their economic development, that created problems too.  A study published in the journal Proceedings of Royal Society B has also found that levels of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita have a direct correlation to the loss of language diversity. In simple terms, the more successful an economy becomes, the more rapidly language diversity disappears. And you could trace that to one simple explanation as a Research Associate from the University of Cambridge puts it:

As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and educational spheres. People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold – economically and politically.

Countries often end up communicating in a common official language. Schools pick up only a few languages that kids continue to learn and converse in. This also explains why this newsletter is in English and not in another language.

And as the country develops, the lands of the indigenous people are often appropriated by corporations vying to get a hold of natural resources that lie beneath the soil. As the biodiversity disappears, they lose access to their only source of livelihood. And they’re forced to migrate to other rural or urban areas.

For instance, 40% of all indigenous peoples of Latin America live in urban areas today. In the Indian context, one in every two tribal households live outside of the traditional tribal blocks too.

Now when these communities split up, their languages begin to face a slow death. The ones who migrate often rely on the dominant language of their new homes.  And over generations, the traditional tongues become extinct.

So, is there a way to salvage these disappearing languages?

Well, one way to do this could be by giving back land lost to development to indigenous communities. A study in 2015 found that the 1.5 billion indigenous people across the world didn’t have rights to 75% of their land. And since their linguistics are heavily linked to their land and practices, maybe protecting these rights is one way to go about it.

Another way out could be technology itself. Besides apps and websites that help people learn new languages, language-salvaging initiatives could help too. Take the Rosetta Project for instance. It’s an open-access digital library of human languages built by language specialists and native speakers globally. It contains around 100,000 pages of documents and recordings of over 2,500 languages. And could help preserve endangered and “sleeping” languages for generations in the future.

Heck, in 1777, the last speaker of Cornish, a language spoken in a part of England, died. And it made its way to the extinct list of languages. But somehow, bits and pieces of it had got passed down. And finally, in 2010, it was taken off the extinct languages list. The internet helped spearhead its revival. People found each other online and communities around Cornish formed. The language has even found its way back into schools now.

So yeah, reviving lost languages is possible.

And finally, local language films and television could also be a way to decelerate language loss with economic growth, while also being a way for communities to stay connected to their roots. Films like SGaawaay K’uuna, the first feature-length film made entirely in Haida, a Canadian indigenous language encourage film production in endangered languages. In 2018, it was honoured as the best Canadian film by the Vancouver International Film Festival and Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Efforts like these give opportunities for more indigenous films and inspire younger generations to hold on to dwindling ancestral tongues.

And maybe all that could help keep endangered languages alive despite economic growth?

Until then…

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