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Disappearing Languages, Vanishing Voices

Context:

English has served as a unifying factor among multilingual Indians since the era of British colonial rule. While English is widely used for communication in urban areas, it can pose challenges in remote rural regions. Regardless of the veracity of the story, the significance of a shared language is recognized. Language serves as a medium for conveying information, thoughts, and emotions.

Relevance:

GS1- Indian Society-Diversity in India.

Mains Question:

“A greater number of people in the world are transitioning to just a few dominant languages at the expense of several smaller ones, resulting in a loss of linguistic diversity.” Examine.

Language Extinction:

Meaning:

It means that the languages will no longer be spoken as a mother tongue, or as the principal language.

Status of languages spoken in the world:

There are approximately 7,000 unique languages spoken as a native language globally. Roughly half of the world’s population speaks one of the top 10 most commonly spoken languages, posing a significant risk to linguistic diversity. Currently, English holds the title of the world’s most commonly spoken language, with the influence of British colonialism playing a key role in its global proliferation.

Statistics:

Statistics indicate that a fascinating mathematical model, featured in The Economic Journal, predicts that approximately 40% of languages spoken by fewer than 35,000 individuals may face extinction within the next century.

Migration and the Extinction of Languages:

When people migrate, there is often a compelling incentive to adopt the predominant language spoken in their new country, as it opens up opportunities for social and economic advancement in their new environment. This transition typically results in first-generation migrants becoming bilingual, followed by subsequent generations having a progressively weaker connection to their native language. By the third generation, there may be a significant loss of ability to speak or understand their grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ language.

India provides a pertinent example of this phenomenon, especially concerning the growing trend of migration to English-speaking countries. English, which currently boasts 340 million native speakers and over 1.2 billion second-language speakers, continues to show potential for further expansion. This raises questions about the fate of Hindi, which has an estimated 586 million second-language speakers worldwide.

Language Indices:

IndicesFindings
Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD)This was introduced as a quantitative tool to analyze the trends observed in the number of native speakers of the world’s languages over the past three decades. It serves as a metric for assessing the decline of languages.

The ILD reveals that on a global scale, linguistic diversity experienced a 20% reduction between 1970 and 2005. Regionally, there was a significant decline in indigenous linguistic diversity, with a decrease of over 60% in the Americas, around 30% in the Pacific, including Australia, and nearly 20% in Africa.

However, it’s important to note that calculating this index based on a sample of, for example, 1,000 languages out of the total 7,000 languages over a specific time frame may not provide an accurate representation, especially considering the increasing global population.

The index’s primary aim is to assess the distribution of speakers among all the languages spoken worldwide, and it has revealed that this distribution is becoming increasingly unequal over time.
Language Diversity IndexThis measures the likelihood that two randomly selected individuals from a population will have different mother tongues. This index ranges from 0 (indicating everyone shares the same mother tongue) to 1 (implying that no two individuals have the same mother tongue). Naturally, countries with a smaller variety of mother languages tend to have a lower LDI compared to countries with a more extensive range of mother tongues.

For instance, when comparing the United Kingdom (LDI of 0.139) to India (LDI of 0.930), we observe that the UK has a lower LDI due to its fewer mother languages. Interestingly, despite both the United States and the United Kingdom predominantly speaking English, the U.S. possesses a higher LDI of 0.353. This discrepancy arises from the significant presence of migrants from diverse countries in the United States.

Inference:

An increasing number of people around the world are shifting towards a handful of dominant languages, often at the expense of numerous smaller ones. This phenomenon is contributing to a decline in linguistic diversity, and unfortunately, some languages are on the brink of extinction.

According to the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), there are several languages today that have only one remaining native speaker, underscoring the precarious situation of these languages. When such languages vanish, they take with them not only a means of communication but also an entire identity and culture.

Language Extinction in India:

As per a 2018 UNESCO report, India is currently facing the threat of extinction for 42 languages, each of which is spoken by fewer than 10,000 individuals. According to UNESCO’s criteria, any language with fewer than 10,000 speakers is considered potentially endangered.

Conclusion:

The loss of any language represents not only a reduction in linguistic diversity but also a forfeiture of the associated cultural nuances, perspectives, and knowledge. It is imperative to devise strategies to halt the decline of languages on a global scale. The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) deserves commendation for its efforts in studying these endangered languages. The LSA is actively creating video and audio recordings and written documentation of these languages, along with their translations. The world must make similar efforts, to explore ways and means to preserve some of these endangered languages.


February 2024
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