Chief Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of the Eyak language in Alaska, died in 2008 at age 89. Photo: NATALIE FOBES/CORBIS IMAGES

Languages are being killed by economic growth

Globalization certainly has its ups: new markets, free trade, travel or economic growth (especially for developing nations). It’s this latter aspect of globalization that might be the dominant factor that’s wiping out languages from the face of the world, according to a study by researchers at the University of Cambridge. Previously, studies have shown that economic growth is an important contributing factor to language disappearance, but these cases were analyzed locally. This is the first study that undertakes such an assessment on a global scale.

Cutting the tongue

In a manner that mimics the process that assesses which species are endangered by extinction, Tatsuya Amano, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and colleagues parsed a database called Ethnologue which documents the number and location of surviving fluent speakers of endangered languages. The group then used this information to calculate geographical range, number of speakers, and rate of speaker decline for languages worldwide and map that data within square grid cells roughly 190 km across, spanning the entire globe.

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Language loss was factored considering a country’s gross domestic product and levels of globalization as calculated by an internationally recognized index, in addition to environmental cues like altitude (many languages die because the communities are too isolated from another, so there’s a severe lack of communication in the network).

Of all of these, economic growth was linked the strongest to language extinction. Such cases include Eyak in Alaska, whose last speaker died in 2008, or Ubykh in Turkey, whose last fluent speaker died in 1992.

“This is the first really solid statistical study I’ve seen which shows principles about language decline that we’ve know about, but hadn’t been able to put together in a sound way,” says Leanne Hinton, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley.

So far, there are 7000 languages spoken in the world, but many of these are dying out at an increased rate. As young natives flee to burgeoning urban centers to find jobs, the tongues of their ancestors die with the little remaining old populations that still choose to live in their homelands and retain their ancient customs. It’s thought that every two weeks, a language becomes extinct.

Every two weeks a language is used by its last speaker

The situation in North America is typical. Of about 165 indigenous languages, only eight are spoken by as many as 10,000 people. About 75 are spoken only by a handful of older people and can be assumed to be on their way to extinction. Around a quarter of the world’s languages have fewer than a thousand remaining speakers, and linguists generally agree in estimating that the extinction within the next century of at least 3,000 of the 6,909 languages listed by Ethnologue, or nearly half, is virtually guaranteed under present circumstances.

And indeed, the study correctly identified North America as one of the two hotspots for language extinction, the second being economically developing regions such as the tropics and the Himalayas.

Besides economic growth, geography seems to also play an important role: language extinction occurs faster in temperate climates than in the tropics or mountainous regions. The authors explain this may happen since it’s easier to move out to cities in temperate regions where native languages can disappear within two generations. Next, the researchers plan on studying how exactly (the mechanics) economic growth is killing languages.

Findings appeared in the Proceeding of Royal Society B.

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