In the small town of Kuşköy on the coast of Turkey, visitors experience a form of the Turkish language they will likely never experience anywhere else. Known as kuş dili, or “bird language,” this language consists entirely of whistling to each other. Each whistle stands for a particular syllable in the Turkish language, and messages can be communicated over long distances. This interesting and melodious cultural experience though may not be around forever. With the advent of the cellphone and instant messaging, the novelty of the bird language may be wearing off.
When we think of endangered species, my guess is that the first thing to pop up in our minds would be the image of a panda or a blue whale. But not all endangered species necessarily belong to the animal kingdom. In fact, right this moment, plenty of human languages around the world are under the threat of vanishing. In the international press though, they are unlikely to get the same form of attention we will see for a cute furry creature.
It is tough to get an exact estimate of the number of languages that are spoken worldwide, but an approximate number according to different sources would be roughly 7000. Around half of the world’s population speaks one of 20 major languages, whereas the other half is divided into the rest of the languages often spoken by only small communities. Contrary to popular belief, English is not the most spoken language in the global, it actually falls in third place behind Mandarin and Spanish.
Languages are basically a form of cultural expression, and like many aspects of culture and tradition, they can fade away over time. Languages can come under threat from domination from outside forces or through a decline in interest from the host community. According to UNESCO, you need to look at a number of factors before you can consider a language to be endangered, such as how the language is being passed to the next generation, if there is an absolute number of speakers, and government policies regulating that language.
We live now in an age of globalization and mass culture. It is no surprise then to find that worldwide, there is an acceleration in the rate of language extinction. As different forms of media allow for the easier dissemination of cultural expressions, traditional forms of communication are finding it hard to compete. The young generation may not find much use of learning local languages in a small villages when they can just adopt the regional or national language. Given the trends in rural to urban migration, it makes little economic sense to persist with a minor language. Due to these and other reasons, according to some estimates, by the end of the century, the vast majority of the lesser spoken languages today will be extinct.
Many reading this may think why this is such a big deal. The reasoning can be that if a language dies, it was not of practical purpose to its speakers and only held a nostalgic value. The problem is that if we allow the rapid eradication of local language the rich diversity of human culture will disappear as well. Each language carries its own unique set of values and traditions, and the loss of the language means the historical knowledge of centuries imbued in that language will be gone.
Once a language reaches an diminishing state, there can be measures taken to ensure it survives, such as documentation and archiving of the language and lessons given to the speaker community. Thanks to digital technology now available, this precious knowledge need not be lost, but can be preserved and taught to future generations. A worthy project doing exactly this is the Endangered Languages Project.
On a personal note, I may not be the most qualified to discuss languages. Though I am bilingual, new languages do not come naturally to me, perhaps my brain is not hardwired that way. But I do recognize how languages play their part in the Divine plan. In Surah Rum, verse 22, Allah sbt states “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.” It is up to us to preserve this diversity.