Endangered languages have been a hot topic for quite a while now. Some people say it is absolutely necessary to at least try to save them, others dismiss the problem as unimportant. Which side are you on? Are you one of those guilty of neglect?
Just to be clear – I don’t blame you. I understand – I really do – that thinking about languages is not something most people do on a daily basis. After all, we all have more important things on our mind; there’s work, and school, and family, and bills, and shopping, and thousands of other responsibilities we need to focus on. Languages? We can live without them. English, French, Spanish, German, and a few others are – or should be – enough to get by on our planet Earth. Those smaller ones can exist; but if they disappear, there will be no loss whatsoever. Because, who cares? Who cares about a tongue that has no more than 200,000 speakers? Who cares if Marshallese or Tokelauan will be in use in say 70 years? If those tongues fade into oblivion, the world will simply lose them. Nothing more, nothing less. There are greater tragedies.
Does this sound all too familiar? I think we’ve all been there – I certainly have. I used to not care; or rather not pay attention – until I grew up and made a major discovery.
It was a few years ago when I realized that languages are important not because they are means of communication, but because they are inextricably linked to culture. This is what makes them unique. You know, there is a common perception that if you are learning a language, you are learning vocabulary and grammar only. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, you are learning words and phrases and all the rules that you need to build your own sentences. But you are also learning something more. You are learning how a certain group of people view the world; what they value the most; what is close to their hearts.
We tend to forget that every single language is somebody’s mother tongue. It is not just a collection of words and grammar rules; it is somebody’s heart and soul. Why, then, do we act as we act?
We neglect languages just as we neglect people. People who are often invisible. That skinny boy who’s not the best at football? That’s the Yapese language. That shy lady sitting behind the desk at your workplace? That’s Kiribati. That slightly plump girl with ginger hair in your class? That’s Tahitian. They all go unnoticed because they are not popular. They lack clout. No one cares what they have to offer. Maybe that skinny boy is a computer genius? Maybe that shy lady is a top professional in her field? Maybe that plump girl is a music prodigy? We will never find out until we get to know them. And just like people, languages too are full of hidden secrets. They are the doorway to ancient knowledge and wisdom. They let us understand their speaker’s ways of being. So when we kill a language – or if we let it die – we kill a culture.
It sounds terrifying, and yet we still aren’t fully convinced it’s our job to do something. We seem to be oblivious to the seriousness of the situation. Well, blame the invisibility. If a certain tongue doesn’t draw anyone’s attention, people slowly start to forget about it. You know what they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity. The endangered tongues are in desperate need of promotion. They need fans. They need George Clooney – or the Rock, or the Duchess of Sussex, or Barack Obama, or even Donald Trump – saying: “I’m learning Tuvaluan, cause it’s so cool.”. They need someone who will notice that the shy lady is irreplaceable. Only then will people stop considering them unimportant.
Of course, there are also those who are simply ignorant. Those who just can’t see beyond their own noses. Those who have the gall to say that other nations will survive because they can come and pick fruit in Australia. Those people will never change. They will forever be guilty of neglect. Because fruit picking will not save the islands. And if it doesn’t save the islands, it won’t also save the languages.