Can Minority Languages Be Saved? Globalization vs. Culture: The Increasing Mobility of People, Goods, and Information Has Driven a Powerful Trend toward Cultural Uniformity and the Extinction of Local Languages. but Languages That Have Young People, Business, and Government on Their Side Are Alive and Thriving

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Globalized economics and media are changing the face of culture around the globe, reducing the number of languages that humans speak. As the world economy becomes more integrated, a common tongue has become more important than ever to promote commerce, and that puts speakers of regional dialects and minority languages at a distinct disadvantage. In addition, telecommunications has pressured languages to become more standardized, further squeezing local variations of language.

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Over the past 500 years, as nation-states developed and became more centralized, regional dialects and minority languages have been dominated by the centrist dialects of the ruling parties. Cornish has given way to English, Breton to French, Bavarian to High German, and Fu-jian-wa to Cantonese. Linguists concur that minority languages all over the world are giving way to more dominant languages, such as English, Mandarin, and Spanish, among others. The realities of commerce and the seductive power of world pop culture are placing pressure on speakers of minority languages to learn majority languages or suffer the consequences: greater difficulty doing business, less access to information, etc.

These pressures are inducing a rapid die-off of languages around the world. Languages have been disappearing steadily, with 3,000 of the world's languages predicted to disappear in the next 100 years. According to the United Nations Environment Program, there are 5,000 to 7,000 spoken languages in the world, with 4,000 to 5,000 of these classed as indigenous, used by native tribes. More than 2,500 are in danger of immediate extinction, and many more are losing their link with the natural world, becoming museum pieces rather than living languages.

Futurists have noted this loss with no little despair, for significant, culturally specific information may disappear along with a language. For instance, knowledge about unique medicines and treatments used by aboriginal groups could be lost forever if the language used to transmit that information is banned by a majority culture.

The common wisdom is that globalization is the wave of the future, and in many respects this is undeniable. However, swept up in this conventional wisdom is the notion that languages and cultures will simply cease to exist, and people will instead choose "global" cultures and languages that will transcend boundaries.

This is not the only potential scenario. It is possible for globalization and new technology to safeguard cultural identity while simultaneously allowing free exchanges of ideas and goods. For centuries, dialects and languages have been unifying to facilitate national identity, scientific research, and commerce. Without question, there will be a need for common languages, as standardization allows growth in software and in people. But global prosperity and new technologies may also allow smaller cultures to preserve their niches. It is clear from several modern examples that a dying or dead language can turn around and become vibrant again, depending on people's determination and the government policies that are put in place.

Reversing Language Loss

The idea of saving languages is very modern. When linguistics scholar Joshua A. Fishman first wrote of "reversing language shift" in his book of that title (1990), one reviewer actually laughed at the notion. The conventional wisdom among linguists, historians, and sociologists was that, if your culture and language were on the way out, their doom was assured in a globalized world. After all, the prevailing trends are toward globalization and a unified world. Tiny dialects--such as Breton, the Celtic language spoken in Brittany, a province on the northwestern coast of France--are not a benefit in the global economy, since they are difficult to learn, poorly adapted to modern life, and unintelligible to almost everyone beyond a small region. …