Just after I moved to Oklahoma three years ago, I was invited to a meeting of the state's Department of Education to discuss Native American languages. I learned that, of the 37 or so Native American languages represented in the state, 22 are already extinct. The last speakers of the Delaware and Mesquakie tongues had recently died; several other languages had only one or two speakers left.
Vanishing languages are not unique to Oklahoma. K. David Harrison, author of When Languages Die (Oxford University Press, 2008), estimates that, of the 6,900 or so languages spoken on the planet, more than half are likely to become extinct over the next century Today, 95% of people speak one of just 400 languages. The other 6,509 languages are unevenly distributed among the remaining 5%. Hundreds of languages, most with only a few speakers still living, are teetering on oblivion at this very moment.
Why are the world's languages disappearing? Like living organisms, languages morph over time in response to continuous evolutionary pressures. Any language is in serious trouble if it is spoken by few people or is confined to a remote geographic area. Many of the languages in northeastern Asia, for example, are in isolated, inhospitable regions where low birthrates and high morbidity rates have been facts of life for hundreds of years.
Geography and Distribution of Languages and Speakers
Geographic isolation is a problem that Oklahoma's dying Native American languages have in common. For example, speakers of Ottawa, of which there may be only three still living in Oklahoma, live in the northeastern part of the state, a location that draws few tourists and little business. If the remaining speakers of Ottawa are still alive, there is a good chance that they are over age 70 and rarely travel outside of the community. Anyone who would want to learn the Ottawa language would have to journey down dirt roads and knock on some unfamiliar doors to find out where these speakers live. Once you arrived on their doorstep, they still g might not talk to you, especially if you are not a member of the tribe.
In New Guinea, a country that hosts a cauldron of language diversity villagers on one side of a mountain often speak a completely different language from villagers who may live less than a kilometer away on the other side. If travel to a geographic location is difficult or interactions with speakers of other languages is restricted, then a language has no way to flourish. Like a plant that receives no pollination, a language without some kind of interaction eventually dies.
A second factor contributing to a language's health is its social desirability. In some parts of the United States, children of first-generation immigrants often grow up in English-speaking neighborhoods, go to English-speaking schools, and come to think of English as the language of acceptance and power. Some of my Texas friends whose parents emigrated from Mexico do not know how to speak, read, or write in Spanish. One friend told me that his parents actually forbade him from speaking Spanish when he was growing up because they considered mastery of English to be essential for success in America.
According to the Global Language Monitor (www.languagemonitor.com, 2011), almost 2 billion people around the globe speak English as either a first or second language, making it the most widely spoken language in the history of the world. The closest runner-up is Mandarin Chinese, with roughly 1 billion speakers, the majority located in or around China. Spanish is the third most widely spoken language, with 500 million speakers, while speakers of Hindi and Arabic come in at fourth and fifth respectively, with between 450 million and 490 million speakers.
French was the most popular language in the world in 1800, but today, Spanish speakers outnumber French speakers worldwide by more than a 2:1 margin. English speakers outnumber French speakers by 10:1. …