Over 200 languages from the Pacific region have officially been given endangered status by UNESCO. But Oceania is home to more than 1000 tongues. Does that mean that the rest of its languages are perfectly safe? That there is no need to worry they, too, may one day face the fate of extinction? In other words, are they endangered, or are they not? Well, that surely is the question.
Before we go to the heart of the matter, we should begin at the beginning. There are three main reasons for language endangerment in the Blue Continent. First, language size. Second, migration. Third, climate change. The causes often overlap or occur together, which makes each of them all the more powerful. So let’s briefly look over them one by one, shall we?
If you analyse the endangered languages list, you’ll notice that all the Pacific tongues that can be found there are very small. Most of them have only several hundred speakers; sometimes the number exceeds a few thousands. Which is still not a lot, especially if you compare it to English (almost 1 billion speakers) or French (over 200 million speakers). So you may argue with me, but it seems that size really is important.
Equally important is migration. Pacific Islanders, although attached to their lands, migrate to Australia, New Zealand, the USA, or Europe in search of a better life or out of pure necessity. Sometimes the foreign country-resident population is larger than the population of the original island home. New Zealand provides such an example: there are more Tokelauans living in Wellington than in Tokelau itself. Let me remind you here that the Tokelauan language is considered severely endangered.
In some cases migration is related to climate change. The number of Islanders choosing to settle abroad is rising like sea levels. They want to escape what seems inevitable. Thus far, seventeen people – 11 from Tuvalu and five from Kiribati – have made refugee claims in New Zealand. Tuvaluan is already on the endangered languages list.
So where do these statistics leave other Oceanic tongues? Are Marshallese, Kiribati, or Tongan also in trouble? Or will they be in the future? No one will tell you for sure. Of course, some predictions may – and should – be made, but whether they will turn out to be correct remains an open question. We all know, after all, that theory often differs from reality. The problem is, this “reality” in the Pacific looks rather grim.
One only needs to glance at the aforementioned causes to understand that not a single tongue in Oceania can be regarded as 100 per cent “safe”. Sure, Samoan, Tongan, Fijian, or the Pacific creoles are not likely to disappear. They are spoken by sizable populations in their homelands as well as abroad; plus, they are not threatened by climate change as much as their “neighbours”.
But the situation of other languages isn’t so rosy. The Marshall Islands and Kiribati are predicted to become uninhabitable within the next 60 years. Their citizens will be forced to live elsewhere. Gradually, they will stop using their mother tongues and, as a result, won’t pass them down to the next generations. Marshallese and Kiribati will be gone.
Quite honestly, this may happen to any tongue the speakers of which decide to relocate overseas (for whatever reason). The common language pattern in migrant families is that the first generation is proficient in their native tongue, the second generation understands it but is less fluent, and the third generation understands some of the language but prefers not to use it. The migration rates in the Pacific are already high, and they will further increase when climate stressors worsen. It is worth remembering that climate change affects not only Kiribati, Tuvalu, or the Marshall Islands, but also Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, Solomon Islands, and many other countries in the region.
The fact is that most of currently non-endangered Pacific languages have a healthy few thousand or a few dozen thousand speakers. Will this be the case in the future? I highly doubt it. Oceanic tongues are too small to resist the changes, too insignificant for the rest of the world to get noticed, and too vulnerable to be able to survive. It depends on us – people – if Yapese, Paicî, or Hano will make the endangered languages list. We should do everything we can to prevent it from happening. So let’s do it. While there’s still time.