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National Science Foundation
Speech Is Physical
Exploring The Interface
Language Learning
Language Change
Paths of Change
Endangered Language
Sign Language
Classroom Resources
Ultrasound probe. Click for larger image.

Ouma Katrina Esau, a N|u speaker (left), talks into a head-mounted microphone while holding an ultrasound probe in place. Linguist Johanna Brugman of Cornell University (right) monitors the video feed on an ultrasound laptop while adjusting the probe for a better image of Esau's tongue as translator Willem Damarah looks on. The tongue of a N|u speaker makes movements not found in most languages. The ultrasound video helps explain the role of tongue movement in language.

This represents a creative use of a tool designed for a different purpose. Originally created for medical use, to help pediatricians “look” at young hearts, the probe now helps linguists “look” at the tongue movements of rare languages.

Credit: Bonny Sands, Northern Arizona University

Endangered Language

As "globalization" increases, so does the loss of human languages. People find it easier to conduct business and communicate with those outside their own culture if they speak more widely used languages like Chinese, Hindi, English, Spanish or Russian. Children are not being educated in languages spoken by a limited number of people. As fewer people use local languages, they gradually die out.

Globalization and other factors speed language loss.
Globalization and other factors speed language loss. Globalization is endangering languages, as people prefer to conduct business and communicate in widely used tongues like English, Chinese and Hindi. Public education, the Internet and print and television media also speed the rate of language loss.

Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

Why It Matters

At least 3,000 of the world’s 6,000-7,000 languages (about 50 percent) are about to be lost. Why should we care? Here are several reasons.

  • The enormous variety of these languages represents a vast, largely unmapped terrain on which linguists, cognitive scientists and philosophers can chart the full capabilities—and limits—of the human mind.
  • Each endangered language embodies unique local knowledge of the cultures and natural systems in the region in which it is spoken.
  • These languages are among our few sources of evidence for understanding human history.

Other Implications

Those who primarily speak one of the world’s major languages may find it hard to understand what losing one’s language can mean--and may even feel that the world would be better off if everyone spoke the same language. In fact, the requirement to speak one language is often associated with violence. Repressive governments forbid certain languages and cultural customs as a form of control. And conquered people resist assimilation by speaking their own languages and practicing their own customs.

On the positive side, one language can enrich another—for example, by providing words and concepts not available in the other language. Most languages (including English) have borrowed words of all kinds. Learning another language often brings an appreciation of other cultures and people.

The study of endangered languages also has implications for cognitive science because languages help illuminate how the brain functions and how we learn. “We want to know what the diversity of languages tells us about the ways the brain stores and communicates experience,” says Peg Barratt, NSF division director for behavioral and cognitive sciences. “Our focus is not just on recording examples of languages that are soon to disappear, but on understanding the grammars, vocabularies and structures of these languages.”

Preserving While Documenting

Documentation is the key to preserving endangered languages. Linguists are trying to document as many as they can by describing grammars and structural features, by recording spoken language and by using computers to store this information for study by scholars. Many endangered languages are only spoken; no written texts exist. So it is important to act quickly in order to capture them before they go extinct.

To help preserve endangered languages, E-MELD (Electronic Metastructure for Endangered Language Data) aims to boost documentation by:

  • duplicating and digitizing high-quality recordings in an archival form;
  • emphasizing self-documenting and software-independent data;
  • giving linguists a toolkit to analyze and compare languages;
  • developing a General Ontology for Linguistic Description (GOLD) to allow interoperability of archives, and comparability of data and analysis.

In another kind of archiving, Joel Sherzer, Anthony Woodbury and Mark McFarland (University of Texas at Austin) are ensuring that Latin America's endangered languages are documented through The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA). This Web-accessible database of audio and textual data features naturally–occurring discourse such as narratives, ceremonies, speeches, songs, poems and conversation. Using their Web browsers, scholars, students and indigenous people can access the database, search and browse the contents and download files using free software.

Documentation is the right thing to do for both cultural and scientific reasons. According to NSF program director Joan Maling, we must explore as many different languages as we can to fully understand this uniquely human capacity—"Language" with a capital L. “Just as biologists can learn only from looking at many different organisms, so linguists and language scientists can learn only from studying many different human languages,” she says. “Preserving linguistic diversity through documentation is critical to the scientific study of language.”

Related Links:

"Endangered Languages" - WAMU Interview with David Lightfoot, NSF Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, March 7, 2007

"The Rosetta Project" -An online digital library of reference materials for all documented human languages

Wikepedia Definition

By Elizabeth Malone

Language and Linguistics A Special Report