Cultural Animal

How we find meaning in life.

Languages Are Vanishing: So What?

Maybe fewer languages would be better!

imageMost of the world's seven thousand languages will no longer be spoken by the end of this century. So what? Should we moan, resist, or say "Good riddance!"? This post was stimulated by a story in the news magazine The Economist on the extinction of languages. It notes that 200 African languages have recently died and another 300 are endangered. In Southeast Asia, another 145 are on the verge of disappearing. And so forth.

Any loss can seem threatening, and so the knee-jerk reaction to warnings about languages is an urge to conserve them. The Economist article editorialized liberally, such as by saying the acceleration in the rate of language extinction is "alarming."

But what's to be alarmed about? The disappearance of a language is not like, say, a local crop failure that augurs starvation. In other words, if some obscure language ceases to be spoken, it is not as if millions or even dozens of people will be unable to talk. All it means is that the people who would have spoken that language will speak a different language.

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I can readily understand alarm about overfishing and the extinction of various fish species. The disappearance of varieties of fish is linked to a disappearance of fish, period. It bespeaks a genuine danger that future generations will not be able to find, see, enjoy, or eat fish.

But there is no danger that we will end up with zero languages.

Let me play devil's advocate for a moment here. Maybe we should celebrate the disappearance of obscure languages. Wouldn't there be considerable positive value if everyone in the world spoke the same language? Imagine how easy it would be to communicate with everyone else.

I am not the only one to see linguistic diversity as more trouble than it's worth. As one distinguished precedent for this point of view, the Bible depicts the emergence of multiple languages as a punishment God inflicted on people. In that story, life was better for all when everyone spoke the same language. The creation of linguistic diversity was a curse and punishment visited upon us, so that we could not understand each other as well.

Americans may find it especially difficult to appreciate the value of a universal language, because thanks to a variety of lucky breaks, much of the world now speaks English. Americans can travel almost anywhere without spending six months learning the local language. They can trust that when they get there, they will be able to communicate -- because someone there will speak English to them. But this is a bit rude of us. In effect, we expect the rest of the world to learn our language so that we don't have to learn theirs. We get the benefits of a world language by being fortunate enough to be born in the country whose native language is also a world language. It would be considerate of us to want to extend those benefits to the rest of the world.

Let me comment further on the Economist article, not because it was unusual, but rather because I think it is fairly typical of how the media and the scholarly world have treated the topic. It seems to assume that the disappearance of languages is a bad thing, though it fails to present much in the way of actual harm that has come. Indeed, and to the magazine's credit, the article does acknowledge that "plenty of languages - among them Akkadian, Etruscan, Tangut, and Chibcha - have gone the way of the dodo, without causing much trouble over posterity." But then it goes on with the handwringing, alarmist tone.

Toward the end, the article says there are ostensibly "strong arguments" in favor of linguistic diversity. As examples, there are three. If these are strong arguments, I don't know what lame ones would be.

First argument: a claim that multilingual children do better than monolingual ones. Is this worth spending billions of dollars in a futile effort to keep various obscure tongues alive? Even if the data on children are correct - and I can imagine they are confounded by having smarter children or more sophisticated parents - the world only needs 2 or 3 languages, not seven thousand. In fact, the future I foresee is that there would be two or three world languages, such as English and Chinese (Mandarin), and every child would learn both. Hence everyone would be multilingual. Getting rid of the other languages would just facilitate this process.

Second argument: rejects the argument that a common tongue helps to avoid war, citing examples of Rwanda, Bosnia, and Vietnam. Citing counterexamples is no substitute for statistics. Have more wars been fought between groups that share a language than between different language groups? Besides, even if language is irrelevant to war, so what? That's not the argument for having a common language.

The third argument is even more absurd. The article notes that an Australian turtle was recently found to have two varieties, and a local language had two different words for the two types. I don't see how that is relevant to anything. It is easy enough to make a new word for the new type of turtle; one hardly needs a separate language. The argument that this links preserving languages to "protection of endangered species" is utterly illogical.

The purpose of language is communication. Communication requires mutual understanding. A language only works if speaker and hearer both understand it. Sharedness is the essence of language. The more widely shared, the more effective. Hence a single world language facilitates communication.

There are those who care about language, and I am one of them. Putting this into practice by preserving near-dead languages on some kind of technologically boosted life support is of dubious value. Instead, we should work to conserve the effectiveness of language to communicate. This means respecting grammar, syntax, writing style, and other hallmarks of a strong, useful language, because they contribute to clarity and precision of communication.

Roy F. Baumeister is Eppes Eminent Scholar, Professor of Psychology, and head of the social psychology graduate program at Florida State University.

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