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The death of a language in the Andaman Islands

(February 2010) A language has died; a culture has died. This week, the last surviving speaker of the Bo language of India’s Andaman Islands passed away. How many speakers does it take to ensure language survival? What factors contribute to language death? What steps can be taken to sustain language viability? Why do languages matter?

Language endangerment is a serious concern to linguists and language planners. For a variety of reasons, speakers of some languages stop using their first language and begin using another. The rate at which little-known languages are going out of use is alarming and justifies the warnings about language death that linguists began making early in the last decade. In order to raise awareness, SIL will join activities for UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day, 21 February, in Paris, Washington DC and other locations.

How many speakers are enough?

Language endangerment is a matter of degree. A language is considered nearly extinct when the speaker population numbers fewer than 50. Since viable population thresholds vary by geographical location, other criteria may indicate that even a language with more than 50 speakers is seriously endangered.

When parents use only a second language with their children, the intergenerational transmission of the language decreases and may even cease. This plight is one issue addressed by the United Nations proclamation of 2008 as the International Year of Languages.

The concern about language endangerment is centered on:

The evaluation and characterization of language endangerment may be based one or both of two dimensions:

Languages which are being used for fewer and fewer functions also tend to lose structural complexity, which in turn may affect the perceptions of users regarding the suitability of the language for use in a broader set of functions. This can lead to a downward spiral which eventually results in the loss of the language altogether.

Sustainable language development through multilingual education

Sustainable language use requires not only an active number of speakers, but the capability to develop the language in ever-widening domains such as computers, education, politics and business. Successful language development enables mother-tongue speakers of non-dominant languages to build a culturally and linguistically appropriate educational foundation in their home language first. Then they can successfully use that foundation as a bridge to one or more additional languages. Multilingual education provides the opportunities for lifelong learning in the local as well as national and international languages.

A language becomes dormant or extinct when it is no longer spoken, though it may still exist in recordings, written records and transcriptions preserved through language documentation. These materials, along with dictionaries, grammars and other products of descriptive linguistics are essential for people who wish to learn a dormant heritage language, the language of their ancestors.

Why languages matter

Language development is a series of ongoing planned actions that a language community takes to ensure that its language continues to serve its changing needs and goals. These may be social, cultural, political, economic or spiritual. Around the world, communities are discovering that by using their traditional language in modern arenas, they are developing solutions to the challenges of change and life-long learning.

The Ethnologue: Languages of the World, the most comprehensive reference volume of its kind, lists 6,909 known living languages in the world. The language codes it uses conform to the ISO 639-3 set of three-letter language codes used globally to definitively identify any given language.

Since its beginning in 1934, SIL has published more than 29,740 works about its research in more than 2,390 languages spoken in more than 70 countries. SIL promotes sustainable language development through research, translation, training and materials development for ethnolinguistic minority communities. SIL recognizes that genuine multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding.

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