BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page was last updated in March 2007We've left it here for reference.More information

7 February 2011
Accessibility help
Text only
Your Voice

BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!

Language ecology
Languages are what make us unique and different. If you see the world as it really is, you cannot say that languages dying out is a good thing. It's awful as, with every language lost, thousands of years of culture disappears with it.
Katy Lee, Berkshire

Language is a part of how we are, and to suggest that the world would be better if we all spoke one language is as absurd as to suggest that we should all have the same colour eyes.
Myfanwy Alexander, Cymru
Elsewhere on BBCi
In defence of 'lost' languages
Elsewhere on the web
Why we should care
How would it feel to be the last speaker of your language?

In Your Area
What do you think about your local accent?
Talk about Voices in your area

Did You Know?
Foreign Language Syndrome occurs when people with brain injuries lose the ability to talk in their native accent. After a stroke, George Reynolds developed an Italian accent.
Find out more...

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Web sites.

Page 1 of 4
Why should we care?
How do languages die?
Can we change the fate of languages?
What else can we change?

Language Ecology by Philippa Law

Losing languages
Why should we care?

Compared to saving the rainforests, or helping pandas to breed, linguistic ecology can seem a bit tame. One language is becoming extinct every fortnight - so what? "Why should we care?" is a common question. Here are a few reasons.

table top
play audio Listen to Dorothy from Huddersfield talking about Jamaican Patois. More...
Identity: Many speakers of minority languages are fiercely proud and defensive of their language. Language forms an important part of anyone's identity. Nerys Jenkins in Belfast says, "Telling me not to speak Welsh would be like telling me not to breathe: I just couldn't do it." To let someone's language die out is to let part of their identity die too.

Culture: Language is bound up in culture - if a nation loses a language, it may also lose its links with a tradition of jokes, music and literature. Elizabeth MacDonald from Arisaig says Scottish Gaelic is "...our language, the most important part of an ancient culture which has somehow survived despite many persecutions over the centuries. It is a culture rich in story, song and poetry, beloved of those familiar with it."

Knowledge: Languages harbour all kinds of human knowledge - including useful biological or medical information that we might not find out about otherwise. In the Micmac language, for example, trees are named after the sounds they make in the wind. The names change as the sounds change, so, if an elderly Micmac speaker remembers that a certain kind of tree used to have one name, but is now called something else, this can reveal the effects of acid rain on that species. Lose Micmac and you lose that insight.

Understanding language: To find out more about language in general, the more examples we have of languages the better. As Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine point out, in their book Vanishing Voices, "To exclude exotic languages from our study is like expecting botanists to study only florist shop roses and greenhouse tomatoes and then tell us what the plant world is like."

The last speaker of Ubykh (spoken near Istanbul) died in 1992; fortunately not before linguists noticed that the language had an incredible 81 consonants and just three vowels. This kind of observation is vital in stretching what we know to be possible in language.

table top
play audio Listen to John from Sark describe the decline of the Sark dialect. More...
The linguist Peter Ladefoged presents another view of endangered languages. Plenty of speakers of endangered languages don't want 'rescuing' by linguists. Many minorities who are looked down upon, discriminated against, or persecuted by a dominant group are willing to give their language up, or make sure their children don't acquire it, in exchange for a more secure life.

Professor Ladefoged remembers speaking to a speaker of the almost-extinct Dahalo language in rural Kenya; the man was glad his sons could only speak the more prestigious Swahili: ''He was proud his sons had been to school and knew things he did not. Who am I to say he was wrong?''

Further reading:
Vanishing Voices by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine


Your Comments
Is it worth saving languages?

Haley James, Massachusetts
When I think of languages I think of diversity. The fact that we are different is what makes everyone so unique. How would you feel if your country was taken over and you had to learn the language of another? I believe that a lot of people would rebel. Language makes up who were are. As humans our culture and ethnic identity is all tied into language. "A language is a medium from which a cultures verse is a medium from which a cultures verse, literature, and song can never be extricated" (Pinker) I also believe that diversity cannot be stopped. Even if every one spoke the same language within that language there is still diversity. Take the USA for example, depending upon where in the US you live, people speak English but the vocabulary may be a bit off and the accents are different. Yet this still does not compare to the diversity we have now. "..The diversity we have now is absolutely irreplaceable" (Woodbury).

Dónall, Éire
Perhaps we should all adopt the same name also, how about we all call ourselves, Ray Ward! We could may be remane every town and city in the world London, or better still despense not only with the various divergence in world language but reduce the human vocabulary to just one word... RAY.

Aaron Sikes from California
Here in the States, there's quite a large movement to make English our official and only language. Loads of people have jumped onto the bandwagon to promote "English for the Children" and other such nonsense. It's been demonstrated time and again that when children are placed in classrooms where the language of instruction is not their first language, those children invariably suffer lower scores on statewide examinations and higher dropout rates later in their schooling (some as early as 8 or 9 years old). The notion that languages should be allowed to go extinct (or even killed off, as Ray Ward seems to be arguing) is tantamount to promoting genocide.

Liam from Inverness
I grew up bilingual, speaking both English and Gaidhlig, and I have to say, I think it's incredibly useful to speak both. Older people (as a general rule) prefer being spoken to in "The gaelic" than in english, and gaidhlig has what english lacks - a formal version of "you." It's such a small difference but makes you seem so much more respectful. Also, I think speaking other languages (regardless of the number of speakers) is useful for improving your own language - since starting to study french and spanish, I have discovered the subjunctive in english, which I never thought existed - and I can now use it. Were I to never (imperfect subjunctive there) study those languages, my own grammar would be poorer.

khayati from karnal,india
well,i think the most embaressing thing for a nation could be the loosing importance and usage of its like india is known for its unity in diversity,and this diversity also exists in case of matter their are many minority languages but it should be the responsibility of their speakers to carry the language on to their next generation.And knowing different languages has alwaya remained a pleasure for a person,so inspite of a single language spoken by evryone one should know many languages.As "best is the worst enimy of good", their cannot be one best language for the whole world.

Find more of your thoughts here.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy