The Extinction of Language: why are we losing linguistic diversity?

Despite the linguistic and cultural assimilation promoted by European and postcolonial nation-building, languages are currently disappearing at a much faster pace than ever before in human history. Of the 7,099 languages spoken today, roughly a third of these have less than 1,000 remaining speakers. Furthermore, in 2014, 24.7% of known languages were classified as ‘threatened’ due to their small geographical range, small speaker population size, and rapid speaker declines.

What is behind this language extinction, which has now outpaced the destructive loss of biodiversity? Modernisation theory posits that political and social institutions, such as democracy and language, evolve as a consequence of economic development. As economic productivity and political organisation increase communication within national polities, diversity will be eroded in favour of a single language. Linguistic minorities will then be motivated to learn this dominant language in pursuit of political ascendancy, economic advantage, and scholarly knowledge.

Accordingly, recent research has shown that GDP per capita negatively impacts speaker growth rates and inter-generational language transmission. A similar effect was found in South Africa, in which growth was shown to decrease linguistic fractionalization as “people [amended] their language preference to better participate in the economic modernisation process”. This relationship also gives reason to the worldwide spread of English, as its association with powerful nations, the scientific community, and info-tech networks provides economic opportunities for linguistic minorities.

Language Sculpture taken in 2006 by Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Language Sculpture | Thomas Hawk/Flickr

However, while it has become increasingly evident that growth drives linguistic homogenisation, it remains unclear if this relationship runs in the opposite direction. The causal impact of linguistic diversity on economic development is central to the study of language economics. Within this field, it has been suggested that language differences between economic actors can increase transaction costs, restrict credit provision, and reduce occupational mobility. In addition to these economic problems, it has also been stated that linguistic fragmentation leads to social divisions and factionalism, both of which undermine the stability required of national development.

These claims have been further supported by empirical evidence. In particular, Joshua Fishman’s cross-national study of linguistically homogeneous and heterogeneous countries found, on average, that the latter performed notably worse on social, economic, and political development indicators. Similarly, in synthesising countries’ GDP per capita with data on their largest native-language community, Jonathan Pool found no instances of linguistically heterogeneous, economically prosperous countries. Despite the descriptive nature of these studies, they were influential in supporting the 20th century notion that language is a problem to be solved through linguistic assimilation and subtractive transitional education.

However, due to a lack of detailed data surrounding language use, much of language economics has focused on native languages spoken from birth. In doing so, this work ignores the widespread multilingualism that has been observed in African and Asian countries. This may be particularly relevant in postcolonial countries, as the standardisation of native languages by colonial administrators and missionaries led to an arbitrary separation of similar linguistic groups. For example, while there are 43 specific languages in Mozambique, 99.8% of the population communicate within the Niger-Congo language group. Thus, by ignoring multilingualism, these arguments overstate the isolation of linguistically diverse communities and disregard the economic benefits of pluralist cultures.

A map of counties based on their linguistic diversity | Ionut Cojocaru/WikiCommons

Countries by Linguistic Diversity | Ionut Cojocaru/WikiCommons


For example, languages are embedded with distinct ideas and understandings, a combination of which can foster the innovation and creativity required in information-based economies. Experimental studies have found that languages can prompt speakers to pay attention to different aspects of the world. Multilingual’s are able to switch between these alternative worldviews, influencing the way they frame problems, events, and outcomes. It is therefore unsurprising that “High-level Plurilingual’s…do better than corresponding monolingual on tests measuring several aspects of ‘intelligence’, creativity, divergent thinking, [and] cognitive flexibility”.

Languages have also been found to embody culturally specific information. For example, the ecological knowledge possessed by indigenous communities constitutes a resource for international considerations on biodiversity and climate change. This knowledge is transferred orally between generations, augmenting the importance of preserving diverse linguistic traditions. It is for this reason that the International Panel on Climate Change recommended the inclusion of literature in other languages when formulating its Fifth Assessment Report.

Finally, multilingual education can also help produce the technical and communication skills demanded by the competitive global economy. For example, in Mali, those students taught with bilingual mother-tongue instruction in the first 4 years of schooling performed better in both languages than those taught solely in French. Similarly, in Ethiopia, those children that had 8 years of mother-tongue medium education performed better across the curriculum than those that switched to English-medium after 4 or 6 years. These educational benefits are central to UNESCO’s promotion of mother-tongue multilingual education in developing countries.

It thus becomes clear that linguistic heterogeneity, if coupled with multilingualism, can foster innovation, high-level human capital, and efficiency. As globalisation promotes dominant language learning and intensifies resource constraints, these kinds of economic arguments are likely to become ever more important for language maintenance. Thus, if the linguistic heritage of developing countries is to be preserved, language must be viewed not as a problem to be solved or a right to be respected, but a resource that can enhance competitiveness and growth.

Feature Image: WikiCommons

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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