Thriving economies, disappearing languages

Dodo, Tasmanian tiger and passenger pigeon. I am sure you can see what’s in common among these species, particularly if you are a conservationist. But even for non-experts, this is probably easy to answer – they are all extinct species.

But what about Eyak or Ubykh? I suspect few people would know what they are and what has happened to them. They are human languages that have recently gone extinct. Eyak was an Alaskan language and when the last native speaker, Marie Smith Jones, died in January 2008, with her died the language itself. Ubykh was a Turkish language and similarly, the last speaker Tevfik Esenç died in 1992.

About 7,000 languages exist around the world, but many are seriously threatened with extinction. For example, Armando Perea Carijona (below) is one of the six remaining speakers of Carijona, a Colombian language.
Photo by Rodrigo Cámara Leret (Section for Ecoinformatics & Biodiversity, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University)

Also, if you take a quick look at a language database called Ethnologue, sadly it is not hard to find languages with only one remaining speaker, like Lakondê in Brazil, Luo in Cameroon, and Taushiro in Peru. Yes, only ONE speaker. The world now has 7 billion people, but only one person can speak that language fluently. I have been using this database for a while, and have actually experienced seeing a language previously described as “with one speaker” being newly categorised under “no known speaker” after an update of the database. So language death is happening even at this very moment, at an alarming rate. Even within this year, we have already seen the death of the last speaker of another language, Klallam in the US.

There is a huge debate about why we should or should not be concerned about the loss of languages (see for example some chapters in this book). But one consensus is that the loss of human languages is often associated with the loss of human cultural diversities. Consequently many international organisations, like the CBD, IUCN, WWF and UNESCO are now actively engaged in the conservation of cultural and linguistic diversity.

Species and languages are of course different, but at the same time they show interesting similarities, such as patterns in spatial distribution (Grenflo et al 2012). Approaches used in ecology have frequently been applied to understanding the dynamics of languages as well (Solé et al 2010). So, languages are threatened and in need of conservation. Knowing that we may be able to contribute to this problem by applying approaches we are using every day, it was quite natural for me to start working on this topic, even though I am not an expert in linguistics.

So in this paper recently published in Proceedings B, we decided to assess the global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk, using macroecological approaches. We first collected data on three characteristics of languages: geographical range size, the number of speakers, and changes in the number of speakers. This is based on the IUCN criteria for assessing species extinction risk, but there is both empirical and theoretical evidence supporting that these three characteristics also represent the extinction risk of languages. We thus mapped the global distribution of each, and identified what explains the spatial patterns in these extinction risk components.

What did we find? I believe the most important finding of this paper is the dominating impact of economic growth on language speaker declines. Unlike patterns in species declines, we found that recent speaker declines in the world’s languages have occurred particularly at higher latitudes, such as in the US, Canada, a part of Europe and Russia, and economic growth measured by GDP per capita, among many other environmental and socio-economic factors, was most strongly associated with this spatial pattern. Earlier studies have indicated the importance of economic growth and associated globalization in the process of language endangerment, mainly based on local case studies. In our paper, we showed that this is a global phenomenon.

Another key finding was that there are two types of hotspots for threatened languages. In economically-developed regions, such as North America and Australia, local languages are now rapidly declining through direct and indirect impacts of national economic growth. So these regions need immediate attention if their languages are to be conserved. In contrast, we also found that many small-range and small-population languages still persist in the tropical and Himalayan regions, as these regions have topographically heterogeneous, productive environments as well as rapidly growing human populations, both of which are expected to allow small languages to evolve and persist. But many countries in these regions are now experiencing rapid economic growth, which means that in the near future languages in these regions are likely to face an elevated risk of extinction. Clearly, in the mid/long-term, we also need to pay much more attention to situations in these regions.

There are many other (hopefully, interesting) findings from this work. Luckily this paper is open access, so if you are interested, please do download and read the paper.

I am extremely happy to finally see this paper in publication. I’m particularly glad because this paper is the outcome of a long collaboration with many people. Bill’s paper on language extinction risk, published in 2003, formed the base of this work. Heidi worked on the global congruence of linguistic diversity and biodiversity for her Master’s thesis in Cambridge, and it was Edouard who started working on the changes in speaker numbers of the world’s languages. Then, few years ago, we started collaborating with experienced macroecologists in Denmark and the UK, and finally, this paper is out!

Hopefully, this paper is just a starting point for our project. We have many other ideas, and I hope to be able to talk about our next output here in the near future.