Why we should let languages die and enjoy those that are still alive

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.

  1. Because an info-graphic in your Facebook news feed said you should
  2. “Just because”
  3. Because you want to save the language*
  4. Because you are bored
  5. Because you need a distraction from studying another language (procrastination)
  6. 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.

Further reading:

Let them die – Kenan Malik – Similar to my post. Really well written and thorough.

  • Erik Zidowecki says:

    Having read all you’ve said, I understand your viewpoint and from a logical position, it makes sense. I have to make two points tho:

    1) You say a language fails because it “did not serve as a useful tool of communication”. Most languages don’t die because they weren’t useful; they die because the people that spoke them died out or were slaughtered. South America had many strong languages that lasted for hundreds of years until the Spanish came and slaughtered the people. Nothing to do with the value of the languages, but totally to do with the power of the invaders. The Roman empire was vast and gave us many new technologies, and they did it using Latin. Now, Latin is “dead”. Can you really say Latin didn’t serve as a good means of communication?

    2) The points about having few people to talk to or not finding references can equally apply to constructed languages. I assume, therefore, that you feel constructed languages also should just go away. If so, then you may soon find a few thousand angry Trekkies dressed as Klingons at your door.

    • Chris Broholm says:

      Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment Erik, it means a lot to me!

      To reply to your points:

      1) Yes, I understand that sometimes languages die due to external reasons and I could have added a sentence that gave a little credit to when that happens, because that’s just like when a business goes out of business because it was hit by a tornado and the insurance didn’t cover it – the business might have been the most successful one ever, but the external forces took out of commission. My tentative counter is that if a language was THAT good – then surely it would return? Latin is a funny one, because it has its uses in historical research, ancient literature and so on, but could you imagine speaking latin on the street? No…those days are gone 🙂 Latin WAS useful, but today languages have evolved from the latin days into what they are today (for better or for worse)

      2) Hah, yeah I should also probably have mentioned that I discuss natural languages only, as I think the reason for learning a constructed language is a bit different from the natural ones, and so I have no problem with people learning them.

      Personally I also find it a bit of a waste of time to learn a conlanguage, but if you learn something like Esperanto in order to better your grammatical understanding of how a language is built up – then yeah awesome, but I wouldn’t learn Esperanto to talk it and read the limited literature there might be – there are so many other languages that would offer me so much more, that it’s impossible for me to do all of them (and get to Esperanto) in my lifetime.

      Klingon is stupid though. But I guess if you have an interest in a cultural phenomenon then fans would go a long way to experience that phenomenon and so people learn and speak Klingon.

      Thanks again!

      • Erik Zidowecki says:

        I will try not be offended by that comment about “if a language were that good, it would return”. Have you studied the history of many endangered and extinct languages? The people were slaughtered and oppressed. Any attempts to keep their language alive was often met with harsh punishments. They didn’t let it die out because the conquering language was better; they did it for their own survival. It’s like saying the carrier pigeons died out because their species was weak, rather than the truth: men killed them by the thousands.

        • Chris Broholm says:

          You are right, it was a bit harsh. I apologize. But to me there is little difference between a language dying out and a language dying because all the speakers were murdered. Of course it’s incredibly tragic and the world has lost something that we will never get back, but it’s gone – now let’s focus on learning the wonders that is the living languages of today!

          • Erik Zidowecki says:

            Counterpoint. You said it would return if it was worth it. That is exactly what people try to do, but you are saying it isn’t worth it because it wasn’t done. That’s circular logic. Languages only come back when people try to save them.

          • Chris Broholm says:

            Say I agree with you that the only way to bring a language back is when people try to save them, do you believe the language that “returns” is the same as the one we lost? Personally I feel like the resurrected language in no way can contain the full cultural implications it originally had and what we get is like a faint memory that gives hints as to how the language was used back when it was alive.

          • Erik Zidowecki says:

            But you aren’t even giving it a chance. You are saying we shouldn’t even try to save a dying language. I’m not talking completely dead, I’m talking endangered, in which there are still speakers and still a culture, still a generation capable of learning it. Some endangered languages are saved… but only when someone makes the attempt.

          • Gangdagu says:

            I agree with Chris, once a language is lost and attempts are made to bring it back, it will be nothing more than a construct. Hawaiian is a perfect example. There are many interpretations of the proper translation, but there is no sense of the essence of the language

          • Saim Dušan Inayatullah says:

            Hawaiian was never “brought back” – modern Hawaiian is a direct continuation of earlier forms of the language. We’re not talking about Cornish or Hebrew here.

          • stalker says:

            we should protect the ancient languages

    • Fire says:

      Latin didn’t die, it just evolved and became the modern Romance languages. Latin is like old English. It’s no longer used because it evolved not because all of a sudden it disappears.
      If we helped every single language then the world would have more than a billion language because each town city village would be speaking its own language. All the widely spoken languages today spread by imperialism. This is a necessary process for the efficiency of the world. We need to let nature takes its course. If a language falls out of use because its speakers see no need to continue speaking it then we should just let it be.

  • Eddie Blankenship says:

    I have to agree with Erik on his first point. Languages don’t fail because they’re inefficient; most of the time languages die because either their speakers are slaughtered or they’ve been colonized and forced to learn another language. South America is a great example, but also the decline of many minority languages in the former Soviet Union.

    Also, you keep talking about learning about and experiencing a culture. These dead languages had cultures too; historians and philologists are interested in learning about those cultures as well. I think that saying that learning and experiencing a culture is a reason for learning a living languages. No, you cannot live in a dead culture, but you can still learn about it and experience it in another way.

    Additionally, dead languages play a huge role in history, not only in giving us documents to read, but also in helping us understand where we came from and where we’ve been.

    While I am of the pessimistic opinion that saving dying languages is a futile task, I think that there is a huge role to be played in preserving them for posterity. No, there may not be speakers of Ossetian or Wakhi or Shughni in 100 years; but there is no reason why people shouldn’t study them and document them for learners to come. If people hadn’t studied and documented Latin after it had died, we wouldn’t have access to these great works that were written in Latin. Yes, there are translations; but if all we have are translations, then we risk a higher rate of contamination.

    I agree with you in that learning a language “to save it” is poor reasoning; but there are many other perfectly legitimate reasons for learning (and why some people should learn) dead languages.

    • Chris Broholm says:

      Eddie, great response to the post – very thought out. I think most of your points stand on their own, without requiring a reply but there’s just one point I want to address and that’s when you say that “dead languages had cultures too” which I did acknowledge, but then go on to say: There are thousands of alive languages with their own culture, so unless I have a specific affiliation or interest in the dead languages I would be better of learning a new exciting culture of a current language, not a dead one.

      So it’s not like I discount the cultural and historical impact of dead languages, not at all.

  • Josva Petersson Thorkell says:

    Oh god…

  • Thomas says:

    Belonging to a people that fought for centuries to keep alive its language, I find this not only insulting, but colonialist as well. I guess your mother tongue is English, of course. You cannot even begin to fathom what’s it’s like to be on the loosing side. Languages don’t die because they lack intrinsicts value, they die because of imperialism. And when it’s because it’s the people that spoke it that let if die because it found it useless, it’s still colonialism, because the people was led to abandon its language because of its own alienation. Languages are not interchangable “telephones” (means of communications), they are whole cultures, whole visions upon the world. French is perhaps the most accurate language there exist, Quechua has a perfect decimal counting system, Cree has genders based on the “animated” state or the “inanimated” state and thus is great at describing transformation processes, etc. Each language brings a whole original intellectual and cognitive aspect about our world. Having everyone speaking the same languague only means that one thought pattern is imposed on everyone. Star Trek’s United Earth and United Federation of Planets is not a paradise, but a hell.

    • The Tremendous says:

      Hey, Thomas. I am that Syrian dude from Quora. I disagree with you. Language barrier and division is an ugly thing for me. The fact that I can’t visit China, Russia, Japan, or Mexico and have meaningful conversation with most people until I spend thousands of hours learning each language is depressing, but we have gotten used to that. I am not a lazy native Anglophone who wants the whole world to learn my language. I am fascinated by lingua francas, languages that unite and enable communication among people thousands of kilometers away from each other. Emotional, religious and nationalistic sentiments have always hindered our progress a species. Every country with a couple of million people insisting on speaking differently, because their ancestors did so, is a major obstacle in our path.

  • Jayden says:

    Others have already summed up the offensive, white-privileged, colonial nature of this post. But, the thing that strikes me just as much is just the overwhelmingly ignorant, uneducated nature of everything that’s said. Like, I wouldn’t write a blog about medicine, because I’m not a doctor who’s studied medical science for years. So, given that you clearly don’t have a single day of education in linguistics, or any kind of social science or cultural studies for that matter, why on earth would you feel so entitled to write about something you clearly know so little about?? You could at least read up a bit on what a language actually *is* before trying to write about them!!

    “To me languages are like businesses”
    Perhaps, just for a second, you could try stepping outside of your privileged white boy shoes and consider what languages mean to, idk, the people who actually own the languages you care so little about? Or, if that’s too hard for you, you could try at least learning about the nature of languages from the linguists who study them for a living -we’ve actually thought about these issues quite a lot, you know!

    “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.”

    Again, thank goodness there are hard-working experts who have studied these issues more than you and know that you’re just plain wrong. Read any Sociolinguistics 101 textbook, or try actually talking to someone who speaks an endangered language about how they feel and what their language means to them. It’s been pointed out in the comments that languages don’t actually die because of any inherent deficiency in the language itself but external factors (most often genocide and oppression). This is actually true in 100% of cases. No language has ever died, anywhere, because of some deficiency in its ability to communicate things.

    “How many languages must die before I start to care?”

    Great to know you have so little interest, compassion or respect for fellow human beings who have suffered/continue to suffer horrendous oppression and/or violence. Great to know you have so little regard for their wishes. You reveal a lot here about your nature as a person, the way your interest in languages is 100% purely based on your own personal gain.

    “Bad reasons for learning a dead or near-extinct language”

    There are never any bad reasons for learning any language. Cognitively, you have absolutely nothing to lose. It’s not like learning one language limits your ability to learn another -in fact, the more languages you learn, the easier it gets to learn more.

    This article is problematic, insulting and flies in the face of all expert knowledge and real facts in many, MANY other ways… But I’ll leave it there for now.

    Try sticking to the stuff you know next time, kiddo. Cheers.

    • Chris Broholm says:

      Oh boy, Jayden Jayden Jayden…..where to begin with you?

      I was close to deleting your post, because it barely contains any actual arguments. It’s mostly an outburst of anger directed at my personality instead of addressing the core arguments. But then again, you did take time to write a lengthy (yet rude) response, so I’ll let it stay here unedited for now.

      I can’t really even begin to fathom why you would suggest that only people with linguistic degrees are allowed to have opinions on the matter. If you really think my argumentation is flawed, try to attack the arguments and not the writer behind them.

      And yet again you bring up colonial nature and genocides, why does it make a difference to you how a language died? It’s dead – which is sad, but get over it already. It’s like losing a family member and then spending every day sitting in front of their grave muttering into the tombstone. Let’s not inhibit our present and future just because we mourn a language that died.

      Besides, I’m not sure why so many people bring up the argumentation of genocide, is that an attempt to try and make people learn a language out of pity? Ohhh, it’s SO sad that this language died, let me learn it out of absolutely no reason except to keep it artificially alive – that’s what it deserves!

      Then you seem to translate my How many languages must die before I start to care, into somehow meaning that I have no respect, interest and compassion for human beings all of a sudden, although the post is about languages. And you then go on to say: “the way your interest in languages is 100% purely based on your own personal gain.”

      Wait. Let’s back up a bit. Are you seriously suggesting that any part of learning a language is not for personal gains? I mean learning a language for me is an expansion of character, cultural vision and the mind – it’s not a fucking charity case where I donate my time in return for bringing a language back from the dead in an act of pity.

      I will say it any day of the week that people should learn languages for their own reasons, and you obviously have some agenda to want to keep alive all endangered languages and learn all dead languages – Good luck with that, I believe there are tens of thousands for you to get started on.

      Language learning and specifically which language to learn is a question of priority, and I just argue in this post why I won’t prioritize dead or endangered languages in my life. It’s not a question of lack of respect or lack of compassion towards other human begins, it’s a simple black and white priority list.

      And since, regrettably, it would not be possible to learn all living languages in a lifetime I am not going to move on to an endangered or dead language. That doesn’t mean to be true for everyone. If you are studying a higher education linguistics degree, then obviously you would have to research this branch as well. But for us casual learners, I’d politely decline today.

      You also know people have incredibly weak arguments when they have to end their comment with “kiddo” even though I’m 26. Ironic for you to be piping up about respect for the fellow human being and then come to my blog, insult me and then leave that condescending message. Well, all I can say is thank you for proving my point and have a nice day.

      • Jayden says:

        Hahaha okay mate… The first part of your post suggests you were expecting some controversy, so don’t pretend like this wasn’t coming. I “heard you out”, and now I’m “bringing out the pitchforks” you deserve. You haven’t said anything which wouldn’t be disproved in the first 5 minutes of any linguistics 101, or any Indigenous studies 101 class for that matter.
        Obviously people without linguistics degrees are allowed to have opinions on languages -don’t be stupid. But if you’re actually going to publish something on the internet that people read, you could do the world a favour and try learning a little about the subject you’re writing about first. Express “opinion”, sure, but don’t go talking about things which are the legitimate pursuit of scientific inquiry and hold that to be valid by virtue of it being your “opinion”. As DeGrasse Tyson says: “The good thing about science is it’s true whether you believe in it or not”. I might have the opinion that the earth is flat, I might even write a stupid blog post about how in my opinion the earth is flat, but that doesn’t make that view valid or even worth combating with real arguments. Likewise, you might have the opinion that “languages are like a business” and they die for certain reasons, but the fact is that “opinion” flies directly in the face of all actual principled observation and research, to the point where it’s barely worth dealing with in any serious way. It’s one thing to have to deal with these uneducated misconceptions in the general, uneducated public -they haven’t studied the subject, they probably never even thought about it so you wouldn’t expect any better- but to have to deal with it from people who feel so entitled as to actually publish these falsities on their blog… I mean it’s just irresponsible on your part, if nothing else.

        I never said, nor did anyone else, that people should actually step up and learn an endangered/extinct language out of pity, because of the genocidal way it died, or any other reason for that matter. I think few people would be stupid enough to argue such a thing. People learn languages for various reasons personal to them, and frankly I don’t care, I’m just really happy to see anyone learning any languages anywhere. The more language learning the better.

        People aren’t actually getting angry at you because they think everyone should quit quit French and take up Kayardild, and even though you’ve tried to shift the subject focus, I think you know this. Rather, myself and others have become angry over your clear lack of knowledge, lack of respect and lack of cultural sensitivity. People are angry over your assertion that colonial languages are intrinsically better languages for communicating than the languages they displaced.

        I went to your personality over the “how many languages have to die before I care?” part of your post because you clearly weren’t writing merely about language learning priorities (so don’t insult everyone’s intelligence by suggesting you were). You CLEARLY said that you simply don’t care (at all, in any sense) how many languages die or why. You just don’t care about the plight of the people that own them. You don’t have to become fluent in an endangered language to simply CARE about what’s happening to it. I certainly don’t know how to speak every endangered language but I sure can care about the plight of the language (and the way that affects both the language owners and humanity as a whole) and I sure as hell respect those languages enough to learn something, ANYTHING about them before trying to write about them on the internet. And to make matters worse, you think your position in all this is somehow “humorous”. Yes, not giving a hoot about mass linguicide caused by colonialism, oppression and genocide… what a laugh indeed.

        I implore you to do the world a favour and look up the UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages and read the introductory parts. You can get started by having a look here: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/

        Would also be worth checking out the Bringing Them Home report, in particular recommendations 12a to 12b, though do have a flick through the whole thing. It’s available online here: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/bringing-them-home-stolen-children-report-1997

        You may also enjoy any basic sociolinguistics textbook.

        • Chris Broholm says:

          Hello again,

          Yes I do not care about: Linguicide. I do not need a textbook to know this. I don’t know what your academic degree, I can only guess it’s in language history or something like that.

          Okay, you asked me to take a textbook. This is what my “An Introduction to Language” by Victoria Fromkin says:

          “Most commonly, languages that become extinct do so gradually, often over several generations. This happens to minority languages that are in contact with a dominant language, much as American Indian languages that are in contact with English. In each generation fewer and fewer children learn the language until there are no new learners.” -p. 518, 7th edition.

          Now I even have academic proof to back me up, from a linguistics 101 textbook like you suggested. Will you agree with me now?

          Speaking of which, you constantly talk about the academic part of linguistics, but then mix it with some kind of emotional response? That’s not really how science works.

          Linguistics is a scientific study of languages, this is a very rational approach. Why do you constantly have to bring up emotion? I do NOT care about some random endangered language. Just like I wouldn’t give a rats ass if you or one of your relatives died. I have no idea who they are,where they are or what they are doing – therefore I do not care. That does not make it less of a personal tragedy for those involved, but to me as an outsider I am no different after than I was before.

          At the end of the day a blog is an opinion piece, and you clearly showed that you disagree with my opinion, that is totally fine, but don’t throw linguistics lingo around in an attempt to discredit my own personal opinion.

          • Jayden says:

            LoL that quote backs up absolutely nothing you’ve ever said. What’s your point??? If you’re trying to prove that langauges die from some inherent inferiority in the language itself, that quote says the opposite, so of course I’ll stick with expert research over your uneducated opinion.

            Since you’re such a cold-hearted, uncaring person who’s repeatedly stated you don’t give a shit if entire cultures are genocided out of existence, I’d implore you to look at the cost to humanity and the wealth of human knowledge which is lost every time a language dies. Again, UNESCO might be a good start.

            Once again, your “opinion” isn’t valid by virtue of it being an opinion. Your opinion is objectively wrong, not to mention anglocentric, white-privileged, borderline racist, offensive bullshit. You can choose to be a nobjob and have the subjective “opinion” that you’re totally okay with genocide, oppression and violence in the world since it doesn’t affect your privileged white boy ass. But you don’t get to choose your own objective facts.

          • Belynn says:

            Kris, I understand that you have a point of view. Without someone expressing their point of view, there can be no constructive discussions and sharing of knowledge and wisdom. Without that, there is no learning. Fortunately, your post has created an opportunity for cognitive conflict and personal growth.

            Kris, is that there are cultures whose health actually depend on their language. One example is an indigenous people’s dying language, here in Canada. Their language is the actual key to knowledge about the land (including plants) that have been used for health reasons over the thousands of years. With the young people being seduced and assimilated by the majority English, their lack of understanding in the importance of wisdom that comes from their own culture, can and will mean an eventual extinction of their language and culture, as are 87 aboriginal languages right now, in Canada.

            This is not what the young want for their culture. The majority group has not been inclusive of their culture – which includes the language. Their language is how the history and knowledge of its people has been handed down, that has been accumulated for thousands of years. Yes, if the elders learned the majority language, that knowledge could still be passed down. Here’s the flaw in that argument, there are languages who have words that can articulate the intangible, that the majority language cannot (Inuits have many words for snow). The ability to communicate succinctly has survival implications for a people who live in specific areas around the world.

            What many do not understand is that a language lost is generations of innate and nuanced information that can no longer be accessed. It is how many self-identify, and when someone disregards the respect that those cultures fight to keep in the face of the majority group, it shows a lack of empathy (not sympathy). When minority cultures resist assimilation and fight to keep their heritage language, it shows the human spirit. It shows a respect for history, as well as the future.

            Viewing language as a one-dimensional perspective on the world shows a lack of exposure to the infinite knowledge about ourselves that only comes from the understanding of how language is linked to cultures. Language is not simply a practical tool, it is a key to understanding ourselves. I think it is commendable that you are learning many languages. However, if you really want to understand the importance of language, spend time within the community for which its survival depends on it. Just knowing how to speak in a language isn’t enough. It’s like the difference between reading about going to Italy, and then actually spending time in Italy, with its people and its culture – not the tourist kind, either.

            Here, in Canada, the aboriginal peoples have known for thousands of years that it is important to create controlled fires, to avoid the incredible destruction that forest fires can do. Unfortunately, our government stopped theses communities from burning smaller fires because they “knew better.” And, because they didn’t listen to the peoples who have lived here long before the white man, we now have a forest fire, in British Columbia, that is the size of Prince Edward Island.

            When one group believes it knows better, and that their ways or opinions are better, and disregards other groups, it displays a lack of understanding of the importance of celebrating the diversity of languages and cultures and what they have to offer that the others can learn from.

            It makes sense that you would not see the usefulness of preserving certain languages. You probably have never had to fight to keep yours. My advice is to spend time with those cultures that speak languages that are directly linked to their survival. Do languages evolve over time? Absolutely. This is inevitable. This is not a bad thing. It is natural. All languages have changed over time. English, for example, is approx. 35% French – and it has borrowed from many languages, as has French. Natural evolution of a language does not mean that the survival of the culture is at risk. However, when groups are made to abandon their own language due to the majority group’s pressure to do so, there are organizations now (UNESCO) who are finally standing up for those who cannot.

            The Europeans thought they knew better when they explored the world, bringing them religion and their language, and destruction of land and cultures of the New World they wished to possess. They still think they know better. They still do not and they have still not learned from past mistakes. My ancestors are European and aboriginal – French, Mi’kmaq, British. I speak from the experience of being a minority group member, living in a community where that majority language is of the minority group. We are surrounded by the majority group, which also includes visual minorities.

            I speak Acadian French, standard French, English, and some Spanish. My sister-in-law is originally from Taiwan. I find it fascinating that there are so many languages around the world! Although there are standards of most of these languages, I am in awe that so many regional languages and dialects have survived for so long, despite the oppression and violence, for some. The human spirit is expressed many ways. When we attempt to snuff out a culture’s form of expression, we are showing the lack of respect we have for others.

            When others have expressed frustration with your opinion, it is simply because they see your lack of understanding. They have grown impatient with that type of attitude. However, once the frustration is resolved, I can understand why you have the opinion that you do. There is room for many languages and cultures. The more we learn about others, the more we learn about ourselves. The more we learn about ourselves, the more compassion we can have for everyone.

            I wish you the best on your quest for learning languages. My hope is that you learn about the minority cultures that survive within that language, and not just the standard version of the language. You may find yourself within these cultures and decide that you are worth saving. While you may not understand my last sentence, you will, if you choose to immerse yourself in a minority culture. You will get it.


        • Chris Broholm says:

          You’ve crossed the line now, so I deleted your last comment. Please refrain from commenting again.

    • Marcin Wasilewski says:

      You’re so ignorant and self privileged douchebag.
      You’re not even scientists just miserable bigots who were bad at maths so they chose such useless field of study.

      ‘Cognitively, you have absolutely nothing to lose.’

      You are losing time.Time is a precious and limited thing that cannot be bought with money.
      All of us are going to die sooner or later so would you learn a language with vibrant and interesting community speaking it for example Spanish,Japanese,Chinese etc. or would you rather waste your life learning a dead language of some Wololo people who lived in manure huts on African savanas 500 years ago?
      Another thing is memory.
      Humans,contrary to popular belief,don’t have infinite memory.
      You can’t learn all languages,once you learn too many you would start to forget or confuse words from other languages and other important information.
      I’m from Poland and I wouldn’t care if my native language was replaced by English or German or something else.

  • […] kontroversjele kollum dêr’t Broholm syn útspraken yn docht is hjir te […]

  • Philip Jones says:

    I would just like to say a word or 2 (or 1000) in support of your opinion.

    When I was living in rural northern Japan I had to learn some of the local dialects in order to speak with elderly people I was working with – dialects that are not comprehensible to people speaking Tokyo standard. These languages are dying out under the pressure of mass media and nationalized education. While I was glad to be able to speak with those people I was equally glad that that these languages are dying, that I did not have to learn a new language in every city I visited, and that with the younger generation and educated people I could speak Tokyo standard wherever I went.

    I will be going to Italy in a few weeks and I have spent a considerable amount of time and effort learning Italian so I can speak to the people while I am there. I am glad I can learn “Italian” and use it everywhere I am going (with the possible exception of Naples) and that I don’t have to learn a separate language for each region I am visiting – which I would have had to to if I had visited Italy as recent as 150 years ago.

    So do I care that languages are dying off? No, I am grateful – It makes the process of language study for communication at least manageable.

    Do I think dying languages should be artificially preserved? No. Languages grow change, split, merge and die. American regional “languages” have been virtually killed off by the Hollywood Californian dialect. Should we create societies to preserve Southern Redneck or New York Harlem? .Should we try to revive the virtually extinct language of Shakespearean.or create government funded programs to revive the dying language of King James Biblical?

    Say I want to preserve the Crow language and culture (a dying language in America). What do I preserve? The Crow language and culture of 2014 are completely different from the Crow language and culture of 200 years ago. Are you going to pick an arbitrary date, with an arbitrary set of grammar and vocab and an arbitrary set of idealized values and say “This is true Crow – speak this way or you are not a true Crow!” and “This is how Crow people think/eat/act/dress – act in this way or you are not a true Crow!”?

    • Chris Broholm says:

      Hey Philip,

      Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving your comment, it means a lot to me. And I must say I really enjoy what you wrote as well, it seems we are on the same page in this discussion! 🙂


  • Saim Dušan Inayatullah says:

    Your post is based two major misconceptions;

    1. Firstly, that language death has anything to do with a given language’s “usefulness” as a code. If we look at the history of language, we see there is no correlation between “usefuleness” as a communication tool and language death. One of the principal axioms of modern linguistics is that all languages are structurally equal (equally “expressive” and “rich”), because colonial linguistics tried and tried but ended up failing miserably to find that so-called “primitive tribes” also spoked “primitive dialects/patois” – in the end it turns out that these “primitive” cultures are just as complex and vibrant as the allegedly “developed” ones.

    Then, if we take “utility” to mean “number of speakers”, we still find very little correlation with the process of language shift. Berber and Kurdish have many more speakers than Icelandic and Luxembourgish – but which are more in danger of extinction? Berber and Kurdish, obviously. What is the difference between Icelanders, Luxembourgers, Amazighs and Kurds? It’s quite simple – the first two populations have their own nation-states, while the latter two have the language of another nationality imposed on them because the state they are governed by sees them as a threat and wants to eliminate them.

    2. The second misconception is that “endangered” means “near-death”. There are many thriving languages that are at the same time endangered – look at Catalan, Basque or Neapolitan; look at the aforementioned Amazigh and Kurdish. There are several different stages of endangerement, and total extinction often takes many generations to be complete. Catalan is better of than Frisian is better off than Basque is better of than Welsh is better off than Occitan is better off than Franco-Provençal – are all these languages “near death”? In your third point you conflate “dying” and “dead” languages and contrast “dying” ones with “living” ones – but “dying” languages are also “living” by definition! Hence, someone who wants to get to know living Amazigh culture or living Occitan culture is not any different to someone who wants to learn about living Arabic or French culture.

    Finally, you bring up the irrelevant point that if one learns an endangered language one could do something else instead. Of course the time I spend learning Occitan could be spent doing something else – in the same vein, all the time I spend learning Portuguese could just as well be spent learning Azeri, my time spent learning Moroccan Arabic could just as well be spent learning Cantonese, or my time spent learning French could just as well be spent learning Mandarin or Zulu. Why does it matter?

    • Chris Broholm says:

      Thank you for your highly informative and educational post. I think you have some great points regarding languages dying.

      The one thing I probably wouldn’t agree with is what you wrote on Fluent in 3 Months that language deaths aren’t natural processes. To me they very much are. They might not die for particularly nice reasons, but they die because the users die or choose not to use the language any more. To me that is pretty natural. The language served its purpose, may it rest in peace.

      I don’t even know if unnatural language deaths exist….it’s definitely a very theoretical concept 🙂

      • Saim Dušan Inayatullah says:

        No worries. I’m a student of linguistics and my main interest is sociolinguistics so I’ve read about this topic in detail.

        It depends on what your definition of “natural” is. Language death is always a political decision provoked by certain historical and economic factors – often this is about homogenising the way of thinking and identity of a state’s citizenry to assure said state’s survival, because language is so fundamental to thought and identity. For example:

        1. A hundred years ago most people in Catalonia spoke exclusively Catalan. Spanish was first introduced as the only public language (school, media, signage, administration) by Franco’s dictatorship, and then Spanish-speaking immigrants came to the country and ended up outnumbering the autochtonous population. Is this process “natural”?

        2. A hundred years ago southern Louisiana was mostly French-speaking; there were many monolingual Francophones and the social use of English was marginal. Then in their (obligatory) military service in the Second World War many Cajun (i.e. Louisiana Francophone) learned English by interacting with Anglo-American troops or being stationed in other territories of the US – this also helped them develop a sense of (monolingual) American nationalism (before this period “English-speaker” and “American” were synonyms for most Cajuns; they did not see themselves as Americans). The introduction of obligatory schooling for the entire population with the only medium of education being English (Cajun children even being punished for speaking French), also helped denationalise the Cajuns and inculcate them with a sort of perverse self-hate. Is this “natural”?

        3. Since the 1940s urban, educated Punjabi Muslims have been shifting to the use of Urdu as their mother tongue. This is because they see Punjabi as a Sikh language, even though that is objectively incorrect – most Punjabi speakers are Muslims. It has also been banned from the education system, despite the many studies that have shown that children learn better in their native language. Finally, the only language that can be used in the Western Punjabi parliament is Urdu. Is this “natural”?

        • Mr. Wu says:

          Saim, this is old as hell, but thanks a lot for your wise reflections. Let me add something more:

          I live in the Canary Islands, (Spain), where a language related to Amazigh was spoken til about 200 years ago. A huge amount of the population was sent as SLAVES to the mainland in the conquest -just 10years before America’s-, some murdered and the “lucky” ones stayed as servants or married to the new landlords. Of course, the language was repressed and eventually lost. We’ve come to be so assimilated into Spanish society, that some islanders laugh when you tell them we still have Amazigh blood (up to 70% of the population, according to DNA studies). Why is that? Well, when you let a language die you also let a culture, an identity, die. Look how died it is, that even 2500km away they feel as Spanish as any Castilian. Homogeneisation at all its might.

          While I feel lucky I speak a language so widespread as Spanish, I can’t help but feel terribly sad, not only because the language I speak now could be completely different, but also the attitude of people towards many things. It’s a cultural thing. I really envy Catalans and Basques. Because people most of times don’t choose not to use their language any more as Chris said. They’re forced to.

  • […] Broholm wrote a piece in his blog, Actual Fluency about why we should let endangered languages die while Brian Powers wrote in his Languages Around the Globe about whether we should learn endangered […]

  • mmouse5000 says:

    I totally agree with this author. What “Cultural Heritage” are we saving with small village languages? So what if we don’t have the words “To catch a fish” from a village in Robinia. Is the fact that someone around the word going to use a phrase that sounds like “mo de seies capaunterra” Going to change my life? Sure, if we have major cultural civilizations like the Romans, that make sense to save their language. Other than idle curiosity and history buffs, these dying languages do nothing for anyone. Even if you did preserve the ‘language’ who is to say the underlying story is correct. “The warrior boy killed a whale with his bare hands and gave food to the villagers.”

    • Hi (Moses?)

      Thank you for stopping by, have been trying to reach you for a while 🙂

      I understand your reaction to my post. In fact when I look back on it there are things I would change too. But the general meaning is the same. It’s meant to be a provocative alternative perspective to the good people who devote their lives to learning dying languages in an act of charity.

      I’ve realised that I can’t learn every language, even if I tried, so I had to look at a natural way of reducing the list from thousands down to just a few dozen and this was one of my ways.

      As I said I don’t think is my best work, it’s written early in the blog’s history and I’m not happy with some of the wording used. If I could change it, I would also make sure to state a bit more explicitly that this is my personal opinion for my personal situation and not a form of doctrine I’m trying to impart on people.

      Please don’t misunderstand the post to mean that I don’t respect cultural diversity, obscure languages or the people who learn them. In fact I have nothing but mad respect for people who study a language with limited usage, because it shows a real passion for preserving culture and also the language in question.

      Thanks again for your comment, even if it is a bit sarcastic. Which is totally warranted by the way I wrote the post back then. Hope you and the twins are well.

  • Hi Kris,

    Someone just sent me the link to this post. I disagree with your point, but I’m happy you articulated the point you did, as it makes me consider my own view more deeply. Let me address a few of your points.

    1. Comparing a “successful” language to a “successful” business. I don’t agree with the standard of “success” that you raise. Many successful businesses are such because they trade well on Wall Street. They may screw their workers, they may destroy the environment, they may produce something for a fad. Yet, in the short term, they are “successful.” Successful businesses, in my mind, do good while generating the least amount of bad.

    Any language can communicate anything. This is a basic fact of Chomskyan linguistics. So “success” isn’t based on whether it could be used to communicate.

    2. Languages don’t simply fail. I’ve written numerous posts about why languages die. Generally a language dies because of violence (as has been mentioned by other commentors), or shame. They don’t die of natural causes; they are attacked and taken over.

    Languages that succeed do so because of economic forces. Rich people languages overtake poor people languages.

    3. You list bad reasons for learning endangered languages but not any good reasons. I recommend coming by my blog for some good reasons 🙂

    Political reasons! (One of my very controversial reasons for learning endangered languages.) Rare and minority languages preserve a dialogue that challenges the status quo. They speak of the world in different terms, from a different perspective.

    They challenge what “successful” means. When someone says, “My children must learn my native Inuktitut,” he or she believes that success is not just speaking the language of Coca Cola. Success is connecting deeply with one’s ancestors who were the so-called “unsuccessful” of history. Staying plugged into the unsuccessful can give the successful pause.

    Our very narrow, Western view of success needs to be challenged all the time to counteract pride and self-righteousness. Otherwise, it’s simply Manifest Destiny.

    The article that you cite as your inspiration disagrees strongly with the Romantic view of languages and cultural mentalities. I disagree with that point of view, too.

    However, his idea that allowing everyone to experience the joys of Western capitalism and its “success” is too neo-liberal for my taste. “Success” manifests itself differently for different people, and we need to preserve space for those different interpretations for our *own* sake, lest we become too smug and self-righteous.

    • Kris Broholm says:

      Thanks for the reply Richard, I know our opinions differ “slightly” on these matters but I’m nonetheless happy to read your points and have them be part of the discussion here. After all this post was an invitation for people to prove me wrong, or add important points like you did 🙂

  • Ethan Divyanathan says:

    There are not “100 or less languages” in use currently. There are over 4,500 languages with more than a thousand users. And having a universal language that everyone speaks will be a major advancement as there will be no more “language barriers”

  • The Tremendous says:

    I agree with most of the post but not the point that languages die because they fail to meet the community’s needs. Although that is true is many cases but definitely not all. My ancestors spoke Aramaic. It was probably the most spoken language at some point. Then, due to the Arab invasion of Syria, cutting the tongues of mothers who spoke it to their kids and the Arabisation policy, it virtually dead now. I feel sad for it but I am not going to waste my time learning it when I can learn living languages and use that time to do something productive. Good luck with your 10 languages. It is truly an exciting adventure and you are lucky to be able to embark on it.

  • buidheag says:

    Hi Kris,
    Languages don’t die, but humans, on the other hand, do. If you understand the difference, you will understand why your post is insulting. If you don’t, you still have loads to learn, so keep up the good work!

  • lucifer lance says:

    damn son……. true savage af, level over 999999
    #respect #savagism

  • Not a Linguist says:

    I thought this post was maybe imperfect (who writes perfect posts anyway?) but it seemed practical. Sorry that so many people over-reacted to some simple points you were trying to make and over-thought what you were saying.

  • M says:

    I seem to be the only Junior Year student of a BA in Linguistics who actually agrees with you, and cares not about dying languages. Now, I’m a weird one here because I LOVE Latin. But that’s because Latin is useful: it helps you understand many nuances from the romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, etc.), and you can even read very important treatises that lose quite a bit when translated. I think what bothers me about the hype of saving languages is that the important ones to save are the “indigenous/native/aboriginal” ones. But no one pays attention if it’s an endangered EUROPEAN language.

    • Kris Broholm says:

      You hit the nail on the head there! Latin is useful, and I don’t think many people learn it to actually use as a way of communication 🙂

    • Quade says:

      Actually basque, Cornish welsh and Gaelic along with various other european languages are trying to be saved by unseco

  • laura says:

    When languages die out because groups of people are driven to extinction, that’s horrible. But if languages die out because young generations don’t learn them in favor of more wide-spread and economically viable languages, it’s natural selection.

    The only viable argument against your post is the relationship between a language and a political identity. But that’s hardly relevant for languages spoken in communities of a few hundreds of people.

    All above is only my opinion, I don’t want to offend anyone, and maybe I will change my views as I study linguistics more.

  • Quade says:

    Thank you for sharing your opinion although others (including myself) do not agree It would be juvenile and wrong to throw petty insults at you for your opinion. That said i am quite late to the conversation but I still would like to give my 2 cents. I see where you are coming form unfortunately though I disagree with this post. you see language is intrinsically tied to culture and i feel that as logical as this post is you tend to overlook that aspect

    1.Languages that are endangered usually belong to cultures that are endangered (except for a few outliers) So saving the language is a direct way to save part of said culture and as many other people said,those languages offer a unique insight into culture. For example australian aboriginal languages have little or no tenses because they see past and future as irrelevant and that their duty is to keep the land as it always has been. Completely different from other languages in history. another case is Xhosa which may not be as endangered but stands as an example of how metaphorical languages can be. when people fight to save a language they don’t fight just to say ocean in some weird dialect their fighting for a way of life that has been for the most part taken from them

    2. I see you compared languages to a business but applying laissez-faire concepts to something as intricate and personal as language survival is logical but misplaced. Because that’s not how languages are spread nobody competes to have the best language. nor does a language fail at communication because languages by definition exist to communicate Languages die because a dominant group pushes out the opposing language(usually by violence or government interference). but for arguments sake lets apply the business logic.If you have two bakeries Bakery a, and bakery b. Bakery b decides to buy up the distributors that bakery a would use and buy up all the surrounding property until bakery a is forced to sell the bushiness to survive.did bakery a lose because it was inferior? No it died because it couldn’t throw enough money at the problem. that’s the problem with this logic as it applies black and white thinking to something like human expression

    Another thing you said that I disagree with is the push to get other people to “learn” endangered languages. the push is to get people to record the language so it can be learned by the people who have lost the language. If you don’t want to learn it you don’t have to in fact you really don’t have to learn any language for that matter. Nobody is telling random kids on the street to speak Cornish but people who have Celtic heritage would probably be interested. Recording the languges of the past does not inhibit the future at all rather it reopens something that could have been lost.

    Thank you for reading and i hope you have a good day

    Sincerely, A 17 year old high school student in Chicago Il

  • Erin Lewis says:


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