Saving endangered languages, one book at a time

Every two weeks, another language goes extinct.

“It is estimated that within 100 years, the world could lose well over half of its current 6,000 languages,” said Phillip M. Carter, a linguistics professor in FIU’s Department of English. “The truly tragic part is this kind of language loss is not necessary, because people have the capacity to know and use multiple languages. When a language is lost, the speakers lose, science loses and humanity loses.”

Phillip M. Carter

Phillip M. Carter

Carter is the author of Languages in the World: How History, Culture and Politics Shape Language, a newly published book that examines the world’s shrinking pool of languages. It draws upon linguistics, history, biology and sociology to offer a cohesive picture of the relationship between language and society. The book also offers nine detailed profiles of languages from diverse families to give readers a broad look at the world’s languages, including Kurdish, Arabic, Tibetan, Hawaiian, Vietnamese and Mongolian among others. Published by Wiley Blackwell, the book is coauthored with Julie Tetel Andresen, professor of English and Linguistics at Duke University.

Language loss has been happening gradually for the past four or five centuries, but an increasing number of local languages have disappeared in the past 20 years due in large part to globalization. As the world’s economies become more interconnected, major languages such as English, Russian and Mandarin offer paths to prosperity. In East Africa, speakers of diverse languages are switching to Swahili. In South America, indigenous peoples are replacing their native Quechua or Aymara with Spanish. Pop culture transports hip-hop music and other Western creations to Malaysia, Mongolia and beyond, adding to the loss of language. Children are not being educated in languages spoken by a limited number of people. As fewer people use local languages, they die out.

Efforts, however, are under way to revitalize some of the world’s most vulnerable languages. In their book, Carter and Andresen discuss efforts to revitalize Hawaiian. Pūnana Leo, or language nests, have successfully produced first-language speakers of Hawaiian since the mid-1980s. In North Carolina, the immersion-based approach to revitalization has connected older speakers of Cherokee with preschoolers to improve the transfer of language between generations. According to Carter, there is no silver bullet for revitalizing dying languages. But, the single most productive way to revitalize a language is by educating the young.

“This is not easy, and, in some parts of the world, it is not allowed,” Carter said. “But, education is key. We need to not just teach the language but teach content in the language.”

Carter and Andresen are taking a stand against language extinction by donating all author royalties from book sales to the Endangered Language Fund, which works to preserve threatened languages.