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Is economic progress killing languages?

Here at London Translations, we often talk about the importance of languages as a tool for businesses to expand into new markets. After all, as professional translators and interpreters, this is at the very centre of what we do.

Last week, however, the University of Cambridge published a new report that hinted of a darker side to economic progress on the global stage: it seems to be pushing hundreds of minority languages to the brink of extinction.

The study, which was led by Tatsuya Amano – a zoologist rather than a linguist, focusing normally on extinction patterns in the animal kingdom – determined that around one in four (24%) world languages is now endangered as a result of economic growth, which tends to produce a homogenous tongue.

Speaking to the BBC, Dr Amano explained: “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 risk being left out in the cold, economically and politically.”

For language lovers, the report contains some alarming statistics. Take Upper Tanana, for example: spoken in just a handful of villages in Alaska, the language is thought to count fewer than 25 speakers today and is therefore a prime candidate for extinction within a generation or two.

Closer to home, Auvergnat and Ume Sami – which are spoken in France and Scandinavia, respectively – are also at risk of vanishing forever, while fewer than ten individuals are thought to be fluent in the Nepalese language of Bahing.

“These countries are experiencing rapid economic growth,” said Dr Amano, “so in the near future these languages will face risk of extinction.”

Can endangered languages be preserved?

In its report on the research, the BBC also quoted Daniel Kaufman – executive director of New York-based non-profit the Endangered Language Alliance – as lending his support for the Cambridge University hypothesis.

He argued: “We are now seeing a pattern of linguistic diversity that was originally shaped by the environment give way to a pattern that is being shaped by policy and economic realities.” In short, while particular environments used to shape the way we spoke, today’s languages are more at the mercy of economic forces than physical and biological ones.

Some of the ways in which this trend manifests itself are so obvious as to be easily overlooked. Take migration, for example – people always move from isolated areas towards economically prosperous ones, homogenising how they communicate.

However, that’s not to say endangered languages can’t be protected with effort. Dr Amano singled out Welsh as a shining example of how a regional tongue can be preserved and even thrive. Over half a million people speak the language – almost one in five (19 per cent) of the country’s inhabitants – making it by far the UK’s biggest minority language.

For tongues like Auvergnat and Ume Sami, however, the future looks less assured. Can these endangered languages be rescued from the brink of extinction, or does the world stand to lose a significant part of its linguistic heritage?

Some of Europe’s endangered languages

  • Cornish: considered an important part of the region’s cultural identity, the Cornish language was, in fact, extinct for a time. It was revived in the 20th century, however, and now counts around 600 speakers.
  • Ume Sami: spoken in parts of Sweden, this critically endangered Uralic tongue is understood by fewer than 20 people. Other struggling Sami languages include Pite Sami (30 speakers), Southern Sami (600 speakers) and Lule Sami (1,000 speakers).
  • Auvergnat: used in the south of France, Auvergnat is a dialect of the Occitan language – itself at risk with fewer than 270,000 speakers.

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