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Researching the Forces that Reduce Linguistic Diversity

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Mar 31, 2015 | #1
Language is the heart of culture, and helps define who a people are and how they act. Indeed, language alters the way a person thinks, and influences their worldview. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, more than 15,000 languages were alive and well. However, because of wars, colonization, genocide, assimilation, and legal bans, 4,000 to 9,000 of those languages have disappeared. Unfortunately, when a language dies, so does its culture. According to Russ Rymer, approximately seven billion people inhibit the Earth, speaking about 7,000 different languages. However, the languages are not divided equally among speakers, and 78 percent of the people use 85 of the largest languages, such as Mandarin and English, while only 8.25 million speakers use 3,500 languages. "Thus, while English has 328 million first-language speakers, and Mandarin 845 million, Tuvan speakers in Russia number just 235,000".

Linguistic Diversity WritingUnfortunately, a hundred years from now, language diversity will be decreased, as the number of languages in the world will decline to a thousand or less. This paper will discuss how linguistic diversity is threatened by war, natural disasters, technology, and globalization, the importance of language diversity, and what is being done to preserve languages.

Linguistic Diversity

Language is an important component of culture, and symbolizes national and ethnic identity. In fact, language is the major medium that maintains and revitalizes a culture. Currently, approximately 4,000 to 7,000 languages still exists in the world today, which provides the globe with linguistic diversity. Harmon and Loh define linguistic diversity as "the number of languages and the evenness of distribution of mother-tongue speakers among languages in a given area". Unfortunately, globally, linguistic diversity decreased 20 percent between 1970 and 2005.

In fact, many languages are becoming extinct. According to Fromkin et al, a language is extinct when children do not learn it. "One language dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,0000 languages spoken on Earth will likely disappear, as communities abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish". In fact, numerous languages are perishing, quickly or slowly.

Unfortunately, languages become extinct through sudden language death, radical language death, gradual language death, or bottom-to-top language death. Sudden language death happens when all the people that speak the language die suddenly. Radical language death occurs when the people that speak the language radically stop speaking it. This generally occurs for political reasons, such as repression and genocide. Children that would normally learn the language are forced to speak another language, and the language dies. Gradual language death generally occurs with minority languages, and is the commonest death of a language. In areas where two or more languages are spoken, the dominant language takes precedent, and with each new generation, fewer children learn the minority language. Bottom-to-top language death describes a language that survives in specific circumstances. For instance, people quit speaking Latin centuries ago, but it continues to be used in religion and for academic purposes.

War and Colonization

Currently, war and colonization continue to be contributing factors to the decrease in language diversity. War usually results in displaced people, rise of new nations, and genocide, which often leads to sudden death, radical death, and gradual death language extinction.

In the past, war and colonization destroyed numerous languages. For instance, many Native American languages suffered sudden death as colonists moved west. "Such was the case with Tasmanian and Nicoleno, a Native American language once spoken in America". In 1860, the Russian Tsar conquered northern Caucasus, killing almost 50,000 of the speakers of Ubykh. In 1992, Tefvik Esenc, a Turkish farmer and last speaker of Ubykh, died, as did his mother tongue.

War and colonization have long term affects on language diversity. For instance, speakers of Ottawa, a Native American language in the Oklahoma area, face language extinction. In the past, members of the tribe were forced to speak English. In addition, although some members continued to speak their mother tongue, gradual language change has affected the outcome of the Ottawa language, and today, very few members of the tribes speak the Ottawa language. "If the few remaining speakers of Ottawa are still alive, there is a good chance that they are over age 70 and rarely travel outside of the community". In fact, numerous Native American languages have been lost or on the brink of extinction, and out of approximately 500 Native American languages spoken in 1600 fewer than 200 are still alive today.

War and colonization also creates new nations, which has an adverse affect on minority languages. For instance, the Russian Tsars conquered plenty of land, and to control the new nation, they banned several languages, including Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani. Speakers of these languages were forced to use Russian instead of their mother tongue. During the Soviet Union era, speaking only the Russian language was strictly enforced, and as a result, 90 percent of the Russian population only speaks Russian, while approximately 100 other languages are on the brink of extinction.

In addition, colonization had a negative affect on Australian Aboriginal languages. Indeed, many aboriginal languages died as a result of colonization, and more are in danger. "About 90 percent of the country's 250 aboriginal languages are near extinction; only seven have more than 1,000 speakers and only two or three are likely to survive the next 50 years or so". Unfortunately, colonization had a long-term negative effect of the aboriginal languages of Australia, and today, these languages face extinction.

Furthermore, war creates waves of immigrants, who have to flee their country in order to survive. For instance, after the Vietnam War, numerous Vietnamese came to the United States. Although they brought their language with them, the second and third generations of the original immigrants usually assimilate the language of their new homeland. In the United States, President Roosevelt proposed that immigrants should be given 5 years to learn English. Most immigrants want to become Americanized, which includes learning English. "An important part of this process was the learning of English and, along with that, the loss of the immigrants' original language". In fact, children of first generation immigrants usually grow up in English speaking neighborhoods, and learn that English is the language of power and acceptance.

Worst of all, war often includes genocide and ethnocide. Genocide and ethnocide is the murder of an entire group of people. When all the speakers of a language are murdered, their language suffers sudden language death. For instance, near the end of the twentieth century the indigenous Akunstu tribe in Brazil was decimated by genocide. Unfortunately, genocide had a powerful detrimental affect on the Akunstu. "By 1995 only seven tribal members remained". Today, the Akunstu language is one of the most endangered languages in the world.

Natural Disasters

Languages can go extinct because of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, droughts, or floods. Unfortunately, most of the endangered languages are found in remote and inhospitable areas of the world. If a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or earthquake, destroys such an area, the odds increase that the language will die, because if all or most of the speakers of a language dies, so does the language.

For instance, an earthquake struck Papua, New Guinea on July 17, 1998, killing 2,200 people and displacing an additional 10,000 people. In addition, the earthquake decimated the villages of Sissano, Warapu, Arop and Malol. Unfortunately, the individuals that lived in these villages spoke four different endangered languages. "In 1990, Sissano had only 4,776 speakers; Maloi was estimated to have 3,330; Arop 1,700 in 1983. The totals for Arop and Warapu will have diminished by at least 500 speakers". In other words, the earthquake, a natural disaster, had a negative affect on four endangered languages.


Modern technological inventions, such as television, have brought foreign languages into the homes of billions of people. "The theme of technology is inescapable for anyone living today. Every day we are bombarded with messages from various technological innovations ranging from our telephones, to our computers, televisions, and fax machines". Indeed, cultures around the world are exposed to messages from other cultures willingly or unwillingly. Although the technology provides a flow from numerous directions, the main sources of information come from the United States utilizing the English language.

In fact, the power of American culture saturates film, television, and music around the world. Indeed, this culture dominates the world. "I have experienced the power of American culture wherever I have gone. Titantic, Friends, CNN, Oprah, and the Backstreet Boys have followed me to Japan, Korea, Thailand, Australia, France, and Italy". Because of the power of technology and American culture transmitted with modern technology, major languages, such as English, are replacing numerous languages around the world.

In addition, with the invention of computers, the Internet, cell phones, and smart phones, the way people communicate is changing. Indeed, images have become more powerful than words. "Not only is the world using fewer languages on a daily basis, but it is also using fewer words".

Furthermore, the Internet has led to texting, e-mailing and tweeting, new forms of electronic communication. However, texting and tweeting are extremely short and direct, and are affecting the way people communicate with each other. "Text messages are usually spontaneous, one-shot efforts, written with little or no revision, often in response to a previous communication". Tweets are short text messages, comprised of less than 140 characters, which restricts linguistic complexity. As people become more dependent on Internet communications, especially tweeting and texting, they are using fewer words to communicate with.

Some scientists are concerned that with the use of fewer words due to electronic communication and visual imagery, mankind will begin to loose their capacity for language. "As the world recedes from the written word and becomes inundated with multisensory stimuli (images, sound, touch, taste, and smell), the part of the human brain associated with language will regress". Unfortunately, the area of the brain responsible for language is also associated with analysis and critical thinking.


With advances in technology, the world has become globalized. "Modern technology in the last 25 years-from the Boeing 747 to the world wide web-has made our globe seem a much smaller place". Globalization has an impact on language, and today, the entire world's speech has become more homogenized. "The 15 most common languages are now on the lips of half the world's people; the top 100 languages are used by 90 percent of humanity". Indeed, a lot of the Earth's language diversity is found in a few regions that are rich in biodiversity but difficult to access geographically. However, with globalization, these areas are being accessed.

Globalization impacts economies, politics, and communications. "In an increasingly globalized, connected, homogenized age, languages spoken in remote places are no longer protected by national borders or natural boundaries from the languages that dominate world communication and commerce". For instance, the Republic of Tuva, a small country in the Russian Federation, the people live between the frontiers of progress and tradition. Most Tuvans speak Tuva, a small language only spoken by approximately 235,000 people. Tuvans also speak Russian, and today, many Tuvans are also adding English to their language repertoire, because they want their children to be successful in the globalized world. "Parents in tribal villages often encourage their children to move away from the insular language of their forebears and toward languages that will permit greater education and success". In other words, English has become the language that equates to education and economical success, because speakers of smaller languages adopt the majority language to ensure that their children will be successful.

In addition, globalization has made it possible for people in one culture to visit another culture for vacation purposes. However, tourists have an impact on language. Today, tourists can board an airplane and visit another country on the other side of the globe within a short 24-hour time span. This provides people with the opportunity to experience different cultures. Unfortunately, the tourist trade has an impact on the culture being visited. For instance, the Mosuo people live on the border of Sichuan in China. They have maintained their language and their culture for thousands of years. They withstood the Hans, the Mongols, and the Communists. Unfortunately, Lugu Lake, home of the Mosuo, has become a hot spot tourist attraction, and the Mosuo's language and culture is being threatened by another surge of people-tourists. "To some degree, this added exposure threatens to envelop the Mosuo in a society that is becoming increasingly homogeneous" . According to Ge Ze A Che, a Mosuo village leader, tourism has already changed the lives of the villagers. For instance, young Mosuo now don Han clothes, speak Chinese, and sing Chinese lyrics.

Globalization has also impacted remote communities as corporations go to the area in search of natural resources, such as wood. For instance, in the rain forests of the Amazon, numerous languages are on the verge of extinction. "About 80 percent of South America's native languages are spoken by under 10,000 people and 27 percent are approaching extinction". Indeed, in Brazil, 42 languages have already died, and Portuguese is replacing many of the remaining languages as tribes are forced from their homes, and move into areas where they have to assimilate the majority language in order to survive.

Preservation of Endangered Languages

Linguists and people interested in the preservation of languages are making efforts to stop the extinction of languages. The preservation of endangered language is important because the loss of languages equates to the loss of various cultures and cultural domination. "With the disappearance of each language, a measure of humankind's richly varied cultural heritage, including countless insights on life, is lost". Language, the beat of culture, is the blood of a person's cultural and ethnic identity.

Indeed, members of minority cultures often feel that their way of life is being threatened. Unfortunately, cultural domination also leads to class disparities, and the loss of cultural identity. "For many ethnic minorities, efforts to counter the threat of linguistic extinction or to resurrect already extinct languages form part of their struggle to maintain their sense of cultural identity and dignity". In addition, preserving their language is a way to protect their communities from cultural domination and class disparities.

In order to ensure that the world maintains a rich diversity of cultures, languages need to be preserved. Indeed, the preservation of languages is good for the welfare of humanity. Preserving languages is a means to better understand other cultures, and to ensure that these cultures survive. Language, the heart of culture, is also a window to understanding people who aren't exactly like us.

Language clubs, members of endangered language communities, some governments, and the United Nations are fighting for the survival of languages on the brink of dying. For instance, when the Northern Ute tribe realized that many members of their community could not speak Ute, they leaders of the community banded together to save their language. In fact, they created a Ute language renewal program and established a Ute language curriculum in the schools. "Today, Ute language and culture instruction is part of the curriculum in a tribally operated high school, and community programs have been established to build language awareness and literacy". In addition, the United Nations passed a resolution to promote and preserve endangered and dying languages. In Canada, the government has made efforts to preserve French in Quebec. In addition, in the United States, Native American communities are attempting to preserve their languages by organizing and resisting assimilation.

Creating linguistic documentation, such as orthographies, dictionaries, and language-learning materials, preserves endangered languages. In addition, promoting positive attitudes about endangered languages, creating linguistic programs, and advocating for linguistic policies are methods to slow down and halt the extinction of endangered languages.


Although the world is comprised of numerous cultures and approximately four to seven thousand languages, many languages face extinction. A language dies when children no longer learn or utilize it. Language, the heart of culture and the main medium of expressing culture, is vital to the survival of culture. Unfortunately, language diversity has decreased over the years, and today, minority languages are endangered because of the affects of war, natural disasters, colonization, technology, and globalization. Fortunately, linguists and other interested individuals are fighting for the survival of endangered languages.


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