Endangered languages

Earlier this year I did a FutureLearn course about multilingualism, during which we had to consider the role of minority languages. I’ve also been reading up on some of the lesser known languages for my A-Z of languages series. As a result of all this, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much effort should be put into keeping vulnerable languages alive.

As anybody who has read this blog know, I love languages. They have fascinated me ever since I was 3 when I first realised that there were languages other than English out there. At school I begged my friends to teach me some words of Urdu, and I used to carry round a note book so that if I came across foreign words in books, I could write them down and learn them. I’ve studied living languages (French, Spanish, German, Chinese, and Arabic amongst others) and I have O’ and A’ levels in “dead languages” (Ancient Greek and Latin). I’ve listened enraptured as a tour guide explained Egyptian hieroglyphics to me, and every time I go to Wales, I look at the Welsh language information boards, even though I don’t understand them. I say all this as context to my musings……

I was actually shocked to discover that in a country as small as the UK, there are ten languages on the UNESCO endangered list, ranging from vulnerable to already extinct. Some I was aware of (Welsh, Cornish, Manx), others I had never even heard of (Norn and various versions of Channel Island French).  My first thought was that it was sad that we have already lost some of these languages, and that it would be lovely to revive those that have become extinct, and to boost those in danger to ensure their survival. After all, these languages are as much a part of our culture and history as castles and stone circles.

But how do you find the resources to revive 10 different languages? If you can’t afford to protect them all, how do you choose? What makes one language worth saving over another?

And in a country that is criticised for its poor language skills and its people’s inability to communicate with others in their own language, can we really justify spending time and money keeping languages alive artificially? Would we not be better to dedicate our time and energy learning the languages that are useful for international trade and relations?

In an ideal world I’d love to learn all ten languages, and then teach them to others to restore a rich tapestry of language to our beautiful islands, Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world though, and I only have the time and energy to learn one more language properly, and for my own personal circumstances that has to be the non-endangered German.

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