Lately, I have begun to see more and more posts published to social media about dying or even dead languages.
I don't have personal interest in endangered languages, but I can understand if some people might find it worrying or even go to great lengths to try and revive these extinct or near-extinct languages.
Update June 2016: I wrote this blog post over 2 years ago when I was first discovering language learning, and as such the post might seem overly negative, which I apologise for. I'm sure I could have presented the arguments in a more diplomatic manner.
I acknowledge that everybody might not agree with the views expressed in this post and this perfectly fine, I'm writing this as a genuine personal blog and if I had to try and please everyone I would never be able to write anything.
If you are against my position on this matter, please make sure the comments you leave are constructive and sober – I am not trying to say that my way of thinking is the right one, but hear me out before you bring out the pitchfork.
Why I do not care about dead languages or trying to save languages that are dying
To me languages are like businesses. The successful businesses thrive and create great surplus, that is to say more speakers of the language are born or made than speakers are dying.
To me language is a means of communication, and if a language dies – then it obviously did not serve as a useful tool of communication. It's a hard and cold fact.
If I started to learn one of these extinct or near-extinct languages, then I would be simply serving as the respirator who keep patients with no hope of recovery alive just long enough for their relatives to say goodbye to them. Which is a great metaphor for language extinction, as well.
How many languages must die before I start to care?
A friend of mine asked me this question and although my answer of “all of them minus one” might have a humorous tone to it, it is actually the truth. Of course, it would be an incredibly sad world to live in if we all spoke the same language, but that's when I would start to worry.
Realistically the number is probably something like 100 languages left or less. This is enough languages to keep me busy with learning for more than my entire life.
This is basically the core of my argument, there are SO many languages and cultures wherein you can study the culture, literature and heritage that to me preserving one that is extinct or near-extinct is just not a good way to go about it.
Yes, extinct languages or languages almost dead can definitely be interesting to study because they often have very different constructions and associated material, like literature and cultural traditions, than we are used to from English or other more popular languages.
BUT that's not why I get into languages, which I stated earlier in my “what is fluency?” post, where I describe a bit about my approach to language learning.
To give you the short version, I'm learning a language to open new doors, be part of a new vibrant community and most important of all: Communicate with other speakers of the language. Of course you can emulate the experience in dead languages, but to me to get excited it must be active and “healthy.”
Why should you learn a dead or dying language?
The previous paragraphs might lead you to believe that I find learning dead or near-extinct languages a complete waste of time, and for me that is definitely true, there are so many living languages I want to learn and experience before I even consider moving on to these threatened languages.
For some people, however, language learning is not just a mean of communication and a desire to experience a living community, culture and literature.
Some people have historical interests or might even have a personal interest in the language. For instance if your great-great-great grandfather spoke a language that is now dead, you might wish to explore it further to respect and learn more about your family history.
Additionally you might find letters or other printed words that you would like to read that has been passed on from generation to generation.
This is when you learn a language that is dead or dying, when you have good reason for it.
6 Bad reasons for learning a dead or near-extinct language
Contrary to the reasons above, there are also pretty bad reasons to conserve a language. Allow me to list a few of them here.
- Because an info-graphic in your Facebook news feed said you should
- “Just because”
- Because you want to save the language*
- Because you are bored
- Because you need a distraction from studying another language (procrastination)
- Because it's cool
*Number 3 is probably going to be the most controversial one and it's also the point that I struggled the most with when writing this post. Is it not a good reason to learn a language to save it from dying?
To me, I find myself answering this question with no. You want to be motivated to learn languages because they mean something to you, or you want to use them for something. Just learning something to save it from dying is an act of charity, that keeps the language artificially alive although it should have died out.
In that time, you could have learned the fascinating language and culture of a completely alive language like Japanese, Chinese, Russian or many others that are very much in use today.
What about the loss of culture when a language dies?
Some people have argued that the language itself is not as important as the culture behind it.
Their argument for learning endangered languages it to preserve the culture.
That I find a little tough. How exactly is a culture of an endangered language of some obscure island preserved because some Danish guy in Europe decided to learn it?
I just don't see it.
Language and culture are obviously highly connected, but I believe that while you can keep a language artificially alive it is only the descendants, or at the very least, geographically close people who can actually maintain the culture.
Academics should study the language, we should document it as much as we can, but I believe it is next to impossible to actually keep a dead culture alive artificially.
Moral of the story and conclusion
The moral of this blog post can be perfectly summarised by this quote:
Every morning brings new potential, but if you dwell on the misfortunes of the day before, you tend to overlook tremendous opportunities.
– Harvey Mackay
The point of this blog post is not to stop people learning dead or near-dead languages. The post is to make you realise that if you devote too much energy and resources to something that “could-have-been” or “has-been” you are omitting the true beauty of the world today, which is the thousands of languages that thrive and exist with fantastic new cultures and literature to boot.
So I implore you; Learn a language, even the ones that are dying or dead, for the right reasons, and mourn the languages that we have lost, but do not dwell on their misfortune in a way that you inhibit your own future. Thank you for reading.
Let them die – Kenan Malik – Similar to my post. Really well written and thorough.
Kris is the founder of Actual Fluency, and has spent the last 8 years becoming an expert in language learning software, methods, and techniques.
Originally from Denmark, he now lives in Portugal and speaks 5+ languages at varying levels. His other interests are Wine, Online Marketing, and Travelling.