The Threat of Language Extinction
The preservation of centuries of priceless knowledge, culture, and different ways of looking at the world depend upon the survival of indigenous languages. When a people lose their language due to cultural imperialism, it can harm the very fabric of their social relations and personal identities. When a language dies, not only does the ethnic group who once utilized the language suffer, but the world loses an unfathomable amount of knowledge, knowledge which enriches the world and gives unique perspectives on how to deal with the trials we face as a species and as individuals.
Today, globalisation has sped up the process of language extinction. Due to globalisation, which relies on the urbanisation (and destruction) of rural communities and ethnicities and the use of a dominant economic language, it is estimated that by the end of this century nearly half of all languages which exist today will be gone (“Language: At threat of extinction”).
As a world community, we need to recognize this trend and do our part in preserving the world’s languages, and thus in preserving the cultures and identities that make us human.
The Institute for Sierra Leone Languages
One example of an organization that is working to resuscitate and ensure the long-term survival of languages is The Institute for Sierra Leone Languages (TISLL). My good friend Gibrilla Kamara works in Freetown for the TISLL, which has been working diligently to help (and often lead) the effort to transform the local indigenous languages (many of which are solely spoken languages) into written languages and to foster literacy within mother-tongues amongst native Sierra Leoneans.
To do this, TISLL provides “literacy opportunities, training and provision of resource materials, translation of scriptures and other supplementary reading materials.” It does all this in the following six indigenous languages: Mende, Themne, Krio, Limba, Kono, Loko, and Kuranko (Kamara).
The Institute for Sierra Leone Languages also operates a library for students engaged in linguistic research, and, according to Kamara, TISLL’s Literacy Program Activities include:
- Developing a desire to learn to read one’s own language
- Preparing primers and graded readers in various Sierra Leonean Languages
- Training Writers, Teachers and literacy Supervisors.
- Producing materials that will aid the reader in transferring his/her reading skills to English.
- Encouraging the production of reading such as newspapers, histories, and traditional folklore books
- For those that are already literate in English, learning to read one’s own mother-tongue helps them to maintain their own cultural heritage.
What We Can Do
The first step that individuals within the Western world can do to help preserve the world’s languages is to simply be aware that language extinction is a serious problem, and to help spread the message of language preservation to the broader public who may not be aware that such an issue exists. The second step to stopping the cultural genocide of language extinction is to support and align ourselves with the efforts of our own ethnic groups, or different ethnic groups we are aware of, in preserving their languages. The battle for languages is not some harmless trend taking place in obscure corners of the globe – language extinction exists in virtually every country; Native American languages have been grappling with the threat of extinction for centuries, and their survival still hangs in the balance today, for example.
Spread the word about language extinction and find out what you can do to support and raise awareness of groups such as the TISLL. When a language dies, a part of our humanity dies with it.
By: Joshua Lew McDermott
Kamara, Gibrilla. Interview by Joshua McDermott. Email. 17 Apr. 2014.
“Language: At threat of extinction.” AlJazeera. Aljazeera, 18 Apr. 2012.