Economic success drives language extinction

September 3, 2014

New research shows economic growth to be main driver of language extinction and reveals global 'hotspots' where languages are most under threat.

The study's authors urge for "immediate attention" to be paid to hotspots in the most developed countries – such as north Australia and the north-western corners of the US and Canada – where should be focused.

They also point to areas of the tropics and Himalayan regions that are undergoing rapid as future hotspots for extinction, such as Brazil and Nepal.

The study is published today in the journal Proceedings of Royal Society B.

The researchers used the criteria for defining to measure rate and prevalence of language loss, as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The three main risk components are: small population size (small number of speakers), small geographical habitat range and population change – in this case, the decline in speaker numbers.

By interrogating huge language datasets using these conservation mechanisms, the researchers found that levels of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita correlated with the loss of : the more successful economically, the more rapidly language diversity was disappearing.

"As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation's political and educational spheres. People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risked being left out in the cold – economically and politically," said Dr Tatsuya Amato, from the University of Cambridge's Department of Zoology.

"Of course everyone has the right to choose the language they speak, but preserving dying language is important to maintaining human cultural diversity in an increasingly globalised world."

In the northwest corner of North America, the languages of the indigenous people are disappearing at an alarming rate. Upper Tanana, for example, a language spoken by indigenous Athabaskan people in eastern Alaska, had only 24 active speakers as of 2009, and was no longer being acquired by children. The Wichita language of the Plains Indians, now based in Oklahoma, had just one fluent speaker as of 2008.

In Australia, aboriginal languages such as the recently extinct Margu and almost extinct Rembarunga are increasingly disappearing from the peninsulas of the Northern Territories.

As the researchers point out, "languages are now rapidly being lost at a rate of extinction exceeding the well-known catastrophic loss of biodiversity". Major international organisations such as the United Nations and Worldwide Fund for Nature are now actively engaged in the conservation of linguistic diversity.

Amano says the global meta-analysis produced by the team using the species criteria is designed to complement the more specific, localised examples featured in many linguistic and anthropological research.

Unlike species extinction, however, language diversity has a potentially saving grace – bilingualism. Previous research from Cambridge's Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics has shown that children who speak more than one language have multiple advantages in education, cognition and social interaction.

"As economies develop, there is increasing advantage in learning international languages such as English, but people can still speak their historically traditional languages. Encouraging those bilingualisms will be critical to preserving ," added Amano.

Explore further: Physicists create tool to foresee language destruction impact and thus prevent it

More information: Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk, Proceedings of Royal Society B, rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/lookup/doi/10.1098/rspb.2014.1574

Related Stories

Diversity is good for your English

October 21, 2013

New research from experts at The University of Manchester has revealed that as the country's linguistic diversity increases, speakers of other languages are also becoming more proficient in English.

New language discovery reveals linguistic insights

June 18, 2013

A new language has been discovered in a remote Indigenous community in northern Australia that is generated from a unique combination of elements from other languages. Light Warlpiri has been documented by University of Michigan ...

Language diversity will make London a true global player

May 10, 2012

Understanding linguistic diversity among London's schoolchildren is key for the city's future as a 'global player', research shows. A study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) mapped the distribution ...

Recommended for you

Amber specimen offers rare glimpse of feathered dinosaur tail

December 8, 2016

Researchers have discovered a dinosaur tail complete with its feathers trapped in a piece of amber. The finding reported in Current Biology on December 8 helps to fill in details of the dinosaurs' feather structure and evolution, ...

Scheduling leisure activities makes them less fun: study

December 8, 2016

Nothing ruins a potentially fun event like putting it on your calendar. In a series of studies, researchers found that scheduling a leisure activity like seeing a movie or taking a coffee break led people to anticipate less ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

aksdad
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 03, 2014
preserving dying language is important to maintaining human cultural diversity in an increasingly globalised world.

The authors assume that cultural diversity is a virtue that supersedes other considerations. The fact that millions of people every year adopt a new language and even a new culture, often for economic benefit, is evidence that it isn't nearly so wonderful a virtue as academics think.

In the 21st Century, with our knowledge of the many cultures around the world, it should be abundantly clear that some cultures are superior to others. I can think of no benefit derived from preserving cultures, for example, that oppress women or treat them as inferior.
borekz
1 / 5 (3) Sep 03, 2014
This is nice but European Union is everlasting Babylon and there are no chances for a change.
alfie_null
5 / 5 (1) Sep 03, 2014
In the 21st Century, with our knowledge of the many cultures around the world, it should be abundantly clear that some cultures are superior to others. I can think of no benefit derived from preserving cultures, for example, that oppress women or treat them as inferior.

For the sake of argument: the most successful culture is the one that can spread itself best by whatever means - imposing itself, etc. 'Superior' implies what? Morality? Morals are, however, defined by culture. Circular.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.