The Commons: Mother Tongue

The Commons: Mother Tongue

Illustration of Sequoyah courtesy of Burstein Collection/Corbis

Half of the world’s languages could vanish by the end of the century. With each one we lose part of humanity’s story.

John Ross speaks Cherokee. He is one of several thousand fluent speakers of this indigenous North American language, the native tongue of generations born more than 50 years ago.

“My parents, grandparents, they could hardly speak English,” says Ross, age 58, a translation specialist for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. “Really, there was no need to learn any other language aside from Cherokee.”

But that changed when government-run schools forced Cherokee out of the classroom, leading to a break in language transmission from Ross’s generation to the next and setting the stage for extinction.

Today, the Cherokee language is actually in far better shape than most indigenous languages around the world. Some languages have only one speaker left, such as Siletz Dee-ni, the last of 27 native languages spoken on the Siletz Reservation in Oregon. By the end of this century, almost half of the planet’s approximately 7,000 languages could vanish; many are spoken by small tribes that have no written traditions.

Language extinction is as old as language. Societal changes and colonization have always affected native tongues—eight to nine thousand years ago, when people settled down to farm, there was probably a big wave of language extinction. But today, the rate of language disappearance has sped up: it’s estimated that a language dies every two weeks to three months.

Saving languages is important for a number of reasons, says Greg Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. “These languages are … historical documents, in a sense, living history accrued over millennia,” he says. “They are complex knowledge systems, and when we lose them, we lose many windows to the human mind.”

Lose a language, and the knowledge it contains—often of the natural world—is gone forever.

The first steps toward extinction happen when children abandon a language, either by coercion or societal pressure. Ross did not teach his own children Cherokee when they were young. “It took me such a long time to get comfortable with the English language,” he says. “I didn’t want the kids to grow up that way.”

Today, the Cherokee Nation combats language loss through an immersion program launched more than a decade ago for schoolchildren from kindergarten to the sixth grade. A hundred children graduated from the program last year.

Ross is part of a team that translates learning materials into Cherokee—including computer software, a difficult task but one that will make a big difference. Incorporating indigenous languages into Internet search engines, instant-messaging programs, and other technology used by children will be key to language renewal, experts say, but global efforts to bolster the media presence of indigenous languages are uneven.

Without funding for innovative programs, languages like Aka and Koro, two completely different languages spoken by a few thousand people in a remote corner of India, are overwhelmed by the dominant language—Hindi, in this case. The Living Tongues Institute steps in when possible, encouraging youths to express themselves in their native languages through modern means, such as composing and recording hip-hop songs in Aka, then spreading the music through the Internet.

Restoring a language also restores ethnic pride, Anderson says, adding that the best way to do that is through immersion programs, shown by follow-up research to result in higher graduation rates and higher salaries for indigenous people.

Ross agrees.

“Restoring our language restores our dignity, our identity, and our self-confidence,” he says. “That’s what we’re trying to do for our youth in our schools.” —S&H

What You Can Do

If You Have a Minute

Visit the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Find a community with an endangered language near you, and then raise awareness via social media.

If You Have an Hour

Host a “Record-a-thon,” a do-it-yourself language documentation event, on behalf of the Rosetta Project, which is creating an archive of endangered languages.

If You Have a Month

The best way to keep a language alive is to use it. So learn one. Check local colleges, universities, and language schools for courses in the indigenous languages in your area. Or try an online course, like this free class offered by the Cherokee Nation:

If You Have $100

Adopt a language through the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, an organization working to record and create digital materials for vanishing languages in collaboration with native speakers.

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