Disappearing languages, vanishing voices

Any loss of language is not only a loss of linguistic diversity but also a loss in terms of the associated cultural variations, opinions, views and knowledge

Updated - September 08, 2023 10:31 am IST

Published - September 08, 2023 12:16 am IST

‘This shrinking in the diversity of languages and their extinction are also related to the migration of people to countries which have a common language’

‘This shrinking in the diversity of languages and their extinction are also related to the migration of people to countries which have a common language’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

English as a common language in India has been acting as a thread by connecting multilingual Indians since the time of the British Raj. While communication in English is not much of a problem in the cities, the language becomes an impediment in the remote areas. This leads to the question: why cannot all people in the world speak in the same language? It would be so much simpler and strengthen our power as a united human force.

Let us look at the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. In Chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis, it is said that the descendants of Noah, after the aftermath of the great flood, spoke a common language. They migrated towards the east and finally settled down at a place called Shinar. They began building a city and a tower tall enough to reach heaven as a demonstration of their collective strength.

Yahweh, the god of the Hebrew Bible, became alarmed and annoyed on observing this, and broke them into many groups, each speaking a different language to reduce the power of their collective strength. This created confusion in terms of communication and understanding and the project failed. Some people are of the opinion that the British made a blunder teaching English to Indians which helped them to unite, communicate and become powerful enough to end colonialism.

Irrespective of whether the story is true or not, the writer of this narrative knew the power of a common language. Language is a vehicle to transfer information, ideas and emotions.

A forecast of language extinction

An estimated 7,000 distinct languages are spoken as a mother tongue across the world. But these languages are shrinking rapidly. An interesting mathematical model published in The Economic Journal which forecasts the extinction of 40% of languages with less than 35,000 speakers within 100 years. By extinction it is meant that the languages will no longer be spoken as a mother tongue, or as the principal language. In essence, the diversity of languages is shrinking with time.

Mother tongues of about half the people in the world belong to a pool of 10 most spoken languages; language diversity faces a grave threat. Today, English is the most widely spoken language of the world. British colonial rule helped spread the language.

This shrinking in the diversity of languages and their extinction are also related to the migration of people to countries which have a common language. When people migrate, there is pressure to shift to the dominant language spoken in the country where they live in order to capitalise on the social and economic advantages offered by the new place. In the process, first-generation migrants become bilingual, the next generation has a weaker grasp of its mother tongue, and the third generation may no longer speak or understand their grandparents or great-grandparents at all. India is a good example with increasing migration to English-speaking countries. English now has 340 million native speakers and more than 1.2 billion second language speakers, with much scope for further growth. One wonders what would happen to Hindi, with an estimated 586 million second language speakers in the world. Would it grow to the level of English?

On the language index

The Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD), which was introduced to quantitatively understand the trends over the past 30 years in the number of mother-tongue speakers of the world’s languages, is a measure to gauge the decline of languages. There is also a Language Diversity Index, where the probability that two people selected from a population at random will have different mother tongues; it ranges from 0 (everyone has the same mother tongue) to 1 (no two people have the same mother tongue). Obviously, countries that have people with a smaller number of mother languages have a lower LDI than countries with a large number of mother tongues. For example, the United Kingdom has an LDI of 0.139 when compared to 0.930 for India. Interestingly, although the predominant language in the United States is English as in the United Kingdom, due to the significant presence of migrants from different countries, the LDI of the U.S. is 0.353. In terms of LDI, the three lowest ranking countries are Haiti (0.000), Cuba (0.001) and Samoa (0.002), while the top ranking three countries are Papua Guinea (0.990), Vanuatu (0.972) and the Solomon Islands (0.965).

The ILD demonstrates that globally, linguistic diversity declined by 20% over the period 1970-2005. Regionally, indigenous linguistic diversity declined over 60% in the Americas, 30% in the Pacific including Australia and almost 20% in Africa. But calculating the index from a sample of only a certain number of languages, let us say 1,000 languages out of 7,000 languages, over a period of time may not give us the correct picture as the world population is also increasing. The index actually tries to understand the distribution of speakers among all the spoken languages of the world. What has been found is that the distribution is becoming greatly uneven with the passage of time.

What we see is that a greater number of people in the world are transitioning to just a few dominant languages at the expense of several smaller ones, resulting in a loss of linguistic diversity, where, finally, some of the languages are becoming extinct. According to the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), dozens of languages today have only one living native speaker, which shows how precariously placed some languages are. Once they vanish, an identity and culture also vanish.

Language is not only a vehicle for communication to express ideas and emotions but it also carries cultural values and indigenous knowledge. The extinction of languages will only result in shrinking cultural diversity and an increase in cultural homogenisation.

The situation in India, need for strategies

According to a report published by UNESCO in 2018, 42 languages are heading towards extinction in India. These were spoken by less than 10,000 people. According to the norms set by UNESCO, any language spoken by only 10,000 people is potentially endangered. Most dying languages are from the indigenous tribal groups spread across India.

The world is very concerned about biodiversity and is alarmed by the loss of species. Different languages can be compared to distinct species in the linguasphere, if we can use such a term. Any loss of language is not only a loss of linguistic diversity but also a loss in terms of associated cultural variations, opinions, views and knowledge. It is time to evolve ideas to arrest the decline of languages on the larger global canvas. The world must at least try to find ways and means to preserve some of its endangered languages. The LSA is doing an admirable job in trying to learn about these endangered languages; it is also making videotapes, audiotapes and written records of the languages, along with their translation. It is hoped that other institutions will emulate this and act to reduce the disappearance of languages in whichever way they can.

Suprakash Chandra Roy is a writer, author and former Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Science and Culture

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.