Did you know that more than half of the world’s population speaks a total of only twenty three languages?
That, coupled with modern technology, means global communication has never been easier. It also means, unfortunately, that those extra-popular languages can turn into something of a cultural tsunami, threatening to drown out the more than seven thousand other languages that are spoken in the world today.
Each one of those seven thousand languages carries with it complex cultural wisdom, built on centuries of experience and embedded in the very words and structures that the people who speak them use to communicate.
Many, many of those languages are slipping away.
UNESCO estimates that approximately six hundred languages have disappeared in the last century, and that up to 90 percent of the ones that remain are likely to disappear by the end of this next century. And SIL International’s Ethnologue states that a third of the world’s languages are currently endangered, with each having less than one thousand remaining speakers.
That is, if we don’t take steps to prevent their loss.
For SIL LEAD, every year is a great year for celebrating indigenous languages and working for their preservation. But we couldn’t be happier that the United Nations has chosen this one, 2019, to draw special attention to the critical need for the protection of the many threatened indigenous languages around the world. We’re grateful that they have expressed “deep concern about the vast number of endangered languages, in particular, indigenous languages, and stressing that, despite the continuing efforts, there is an urgent need to preserve, promote and revitalize endangered languages.”
In their resolution, the UN stresses the need for the UN's Member States to mainstream the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples into development policies and programs at the national, regional, and international levels.
We think that is key—that the best way for these languages to be protected is to give indigenous peoples a hand in determining their own futures. Often these languages aren’t so much fading as being overpowered, and the only way for them to be preserved is for the powerful to be open to hearing indigenous peoples’ voices.
When any language dies, we all lose an immeasurable treasure. But if the people who speak these languages are given a seat at the table, we can preserve that treasure for future generations.
Please take a moment to consider what your language means to you, and join us (and the United Nations) in celebrating how rich and beautiful the indigenous languages of the world truly are.
Note: In just over a month we will celebrate International Mother Language Day - another opportunity to celebrate our linguistic diversity.