Have you heard that the monarch butterfly population of California is on the brink of collapse?
Even if you’ve never been to California to observe the monarchs, most of us have seen this iconic species on nature shows and in magazines, and have marveled at their seemingly endless numbers. But in the last few decades the population in California has plummeted from well over four million to just over twenty eight thousand, and scientists are predicting that without a dedicated effort toward their preservation, these delicate beauties could disappear from the planet forever.
For anyone who enjoys and loves the wonders of the natural world, such an extinction would be a tragedy—the loss of a creature that not only plays a vital ecological role as a pollinator, but also brings joy to millions with the stunning aesthetic beauty of its mass migration.
This parallels how we at SIL LEAD view the ongoing extinction of so many of the world’s languages, which may be dying off at a rate of as many as 10 languages each year. As with the monarchs, we do not know what the ultimate cost will be of their disappearance—but we do know that their loss is our loss, and that we must do what we can to preserve them. Languages play a vital role in the interconnected social fabric of human culture and once they are gone, like the passenger pigeon or the dodo, they are generally gone forever.
The extinction of species and languages are problems so large that we can’t possibly hope to solve them—at least, not on our own, nor all at once. But like a little boy throwing tide-stranded starfish back into the sea, we can make a difference. Small actions accumulate over time to effect significant change.
It is not likely that there’s a one-size-fits-all solution that will single handedly save threatened languages. That’s why we focus on helping local, community-based organizations use their own languages to improve their quality of life. We believe that all these small actions, taken together, will have a larger impact on the health and stability of these communities and the languages they speak, and the world as a whole.
Unlike the monarch butterflies—which are incapable of advocating for themselves—our collaborators in language communities around the world have shown great initiative in working to preserve their languages and cultures for generations to come.
It is true that like many ecological issues facing us today, the problems of language loss are enormous and can seem insurmountable. But there is beauty in knowing that the people in these language communities are not powerless victims. That they can and will make a difference.