Language Extinction

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April 13, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

Our past is embedded in the words we speak, and the stories we tell and sometimes write down. Yet UNESCO estimates that, if nothing changes, half of the 6,000 tongues spoken on the planet today will be gone by the end of this century, and with them, embedded history.

A language is considered nearly extinct when only a few native speakers use it and it’s no longer being taught to children, which means, if nothing changes, they are doomed to disappear. Unlike trees, whose genes can be conserved in seed banks, or animals that can be bred in captivity, language is so intangible it can only survive if people speak it.

While extinction is a natural phenomenon, just as it is in nature, colonization, globalization and urbanization have significantly sped up the process. “Of course it’s all right that we don’t speak Latin in the streets of Rome anymore, but before it disappeared, Latin had a chance to leave descendants,” explains Wade Davis, a cultural anthropologist and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, who says today’s rate of language loss is unprecedented.

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists 576 as critically endangered, with thousands of others labeled as endangered or vulnerable. No continent is immune to this phenomenon and some are down to only a handful of speakers. Like Ainu, a Japanese dialect from the island of Hokkaido that only has about 10 native speakers left. Or Brazilian native’s Apiaká who might only have a single speaker left. Others are thought dormant, with no known speakers but no confirmed extinction either, like the Baygo language in South Sudan. The U.S. is home to many languages in a similar situation. In 2014 alone, the last known monolingual speakers of Chickasaw and Klallam, two Native American languages, died.

Preservationists are fighting back in some places. In New Zealand, for example, the Maori have opened nursery schools where elders conduct classes, all in Maori. They call them “language nests.” In Mexico, after refusing to talk to each other for years, the last two surviving speakers of Ayapaneco — a thousand-year-old pre-Columbian tongue — recently reunited to try and save their language. And several organizations like the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages or National Geographic are going to great lengths to document and record languages at the brink of disappearance. Even Google is putting its resources at the service of safeguarding linguistic diversity through its Endangered Languages Project.

It can easily be argued that a language’s extinction is just a form of ethno-linguistic natural selection. But when a language dies, the world loses much more than just words and syntax. “Only a few cultures erected grandiose architectural monuments by which we can remember their achievements. But all cultures encode their genius in their languages, stories and lexicons,” says K. David Harrison, director of research at the Living Tongues Institute and author of When Languages Die.

Of course, measuring the value of language is impossible, but that might be precisely why preserving it is so crucial. We might not understand the value of what we had, even after it’s gone.

Adapted from Ozy.

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This was an article on Linguistics.

Have a great day.
Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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26 Comments


  1. MI: languages –> disappearing quickly. preservation = important (CW)

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  2. Language extinction= everywhere + some preservation

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  3. language extinction = history extinction, extinction of language increasing

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  4. There’s been an increase in language extinction throughout the world. We need to save dying languages because losing them can lead to potential major loss in history since the two are connected.

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  5. Many languages are in danger of extinction; language must be preserved

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  6. Languages are crucial and must be preserved from their extinction. The value of language: hindsight 20/20

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  7. MIP: lang = extinct =/= speak; preserve lang = crucial/ valuable (CW)

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  8. MIP: inc rate of lang loss=new=bad
    tone:neut

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  9. Many languages are dying, preservation is important.

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  10. MI: certain languages dying/ extinction = loses past/ preservation =crucial
    Tone: argumentative

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  11. MIP: Lots of languages in danger of extinction + profound consequences; tone = neutral

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  12. Language extinction = history/culture extinction = at extremely fast rate
    Preservation is crucial (AT)

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  13. MI: many languages = endangered + survival contingent on speaking it

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  14. lang extinciton = cultural extinction (cw) + fast rate (davis)

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  15. Spoken and written languages preserve culture

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  16. MIP: no change = language extinction
    MIP 2: Language extinction = huge loss

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  17. MIP: losing language + history (CW); language dies = lose a lot (CW); language describes culture (CW, Hanson)

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  18. Languages = increased extinction = losing history + preservation = important

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  19. lang= becoming extinct + initiatives being taken to preserve

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  20. MI: Lang Dec faster now than before, need help saving them
    Tone: Negative

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  21. languages = disappearing, history disappears w language CW

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  22. MI: Lang. = record history , no users → extinction of lang. , A: Support Lang. Preservation

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  23. languages throughout the world are experiencing extinction, or are critically endangered. The author states examples of certain languages that are at the brink of extinction today, and the organizations and efforts being done to prevent this. In conclusion, the author reminds the audience on why it is crucial that we protect these languages.

    Reply

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