Imagine if all the English-speaking children you knew suddenly shifted to Esperanto and you knew without a doubt that once they grew up, the English language would disappear from the world forever.
Sure, there’d be a written record. There’d be novels, encyclopedias, and history books (and movies!). But if nobody was speaking and using English, all of that accumulated material would quickly become the province of a small group of academics.
Of the over seven thousand languages spoken in the world today, one thousand, three hundred and ninety-three are not being passed on to new generations and will soon be lost. The words, history, and much of the culture of around eleven point seven million people… gone.
Just let that sink in for a moment.
Sure, the English language is used much more extensively throughout the world than these one thousand, three hundred and ninety-three languages, and its loss would create a much more widespread impact. But just think for a moment about what we are losing, here. Think of all the history and culture that are embedded within a language. Think of one thousand, three hundred and ninety-three languages worth of knowledge and wisdom, gone within a generation.
It’s too big a thought, isn’t it?
So let’s get smaller and more specific. Let’s talk about Thailand.
Thailand has over seventy ethnic groups, many of which live in extremely rural communities where there is little or no opportunity for formal education, and what educational opportunities there are are usually only available in Thai, a language the children do not speak.
Parents in Thailand are like parents everywhere. They want the best for their children. They recognize that the world is changing and that for their children to survive, they’ll have to be equipped with good education. Without schools nearby, these parents are often forced to send their children away to far away towns and cities for their schooling.
There, the children are required to learn in a language they do not speak.
It’s an either/or situation they are not equipped to handle. Not only do they often underperform as a result, but in the process they begin to lose their own language and culture. The end result is that they are not only ill-equipped to participate in the broader world, but they are stripped of the strength and wisdom of their linguistic heritage as well.
The Foundation for Applied Linguistics (or FAL) in Thailand is one of many programs worldwide seeking to combat this trend. The video below shows how “FAL has been able to help some communities [in Thailand] set up their own education programs for young children using their own local languages. The teachers are people from the communities who have received training from FAL. They teach using the local language, enabling the students to develop fluency in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. This gives them a strong foundation to help them learn Thai, next.”
As assistant pastor Manop Pungern says in the video, “This program is one way of bringing development to our village. We can develop our own culture and mother tongue language so it will not disappear. We will continue to be able to speak, read, and write in our own language, because the children today will be the adults of the future.”
Thailand and its fading languages are one small part of a much larger imperative, but the work is being done.
Still, the work left before us is expansive. One thousand, three hundred and ninety-three is a lot of languages, and they will not be preserved all at once and without great effort. But the cost of the alternative is so much greater, as we contemplate the extinction of ways of thinking and being that have taken millennia to develop.
Think about that today, and consider ways in which you could make a difference right now. Perhaps you might DONATE to the work of an organization like SIL LEAD, which is working around the world to help minority language communities preserve their cultures and ways of life. Or maybe you can look at the FAL Thailand website or on their Facebook page and get involved there.
Whatever you do, we hope you take a moment today to consider what your language means to you, and what you’d be willing to do to preserve it.