Are Economic Powerhouses Driving Languages To Extinction?
In the past generation, a rising global economy has changed industry and the marketplace for good. While this allows for goods and services to be more consumer-driven with competitive pricing, it has a far more damaging effect on local businesses. Just as small, independent companies struggle to compete with large corporations, indigenous languages are in similar danger. As the world’s top money-making languages—chiefly English, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish— become more and more in demand by people seeking to advance their careers, languages spoken by small populations and secluded communities are falling by the wayside.
While language extinction isn’t a new phenomenon—old languages have been dying out to make way for new languages for as long as human civilization has existed—it has never before happened at such an alarming rate. Studies have been done to identify key “hotspots” around the world where indigenous languages are in danger of being wiped out with the current generation, due to declining number of speakers. Interestingly, the areas where native languages are most threatened are the ones with the highest GDP. That is, the areas with the most thriving economies are quickly becoming the most linguistically homogenous.
This is especially disastrous for developing countries with rapidly advancing economies. Brazil and Peru in particular, as well as areas in Nepal, the Himalayas, and northern Australia, are all areas rapidly advancing on the global market, which spells disaster for the languages of traditional populations. Native Americans in the northwest region of the United States and Canada are also suffering irreversible language loss; in 2008 there remained only 24 elderly speakers of Upper Tanana, and only one speaker of Wichita, the language of the Plains Indians in Oklahoma.
This worrying trend is even more sinister than the endangerment of biodiversity, as it is gradual and seemingly optional. After all, no one is forcing people to give up on the language of their ancestry; they are freely choosing to pursue the languages that will result in greater career benefits and communication skills. Native languages that only the older generation regularly speaks, that are tied to a dying way of life and a small community, may seem like a sinking ship to young people eager to keep up with the changing times. In many cases, learning a mainstream language may mean the survival of an individual or family at the expense of their more abstract cultural heritage.
As a nation’s economy develops, the dominant language tends to monopolize the social and political sector. Shops, schools, and government functions all tend to side with the language that commands the most economic movement, and minor languages become designated for the home. While it is possible to slow down the rate of language extinction through cultural movements that encourage bilingualism, which successfully brought Welsh back from close to death, it takes an enormous amount of conscious effort across an entire population to push back against language decay.