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How to Prevent Language Extinction

Two third of the world’s languages are endangered. Now a new mathematical model of language competition suggests how to combat the threat

The 7 billion inhabitants of Earth currently speak about 6000 different languages. That may seem a healthy multitude but it turns out that just five of these languages dominate. More than half the population speak English, Russian, Mandarin, Hindi and Spanish. These together with the next hundred most popular languages account for 95 per cent of speakers. A mere 5 per cent of the global population speak the rest and two thirds of these lingos are in danger of extinction.

That’s a perilous state of affairs. With the death of a language, the planet loses an irreplaceable cultural phenomenon. The fear is that the big five may crush all before them, pushing weaker languages into oblivion and leaving a cultural desert in their wake.

That fear has been exacerbated by mathematical models describing how one language can dominate another and showing how easily extinctions happen.

Today, however, there is better news. The relentless march of dominant languages may not be as inevitable as these early models seemed to show, according to a new analysis by Jose Mira at the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela in Spain and a couple of amigos.

The early analyses looked at a stable population in which two languages competed for speakers who chose one over the other depending on their perceived social and economic advantages and also their similarity, meaning how easy it was to switch between the two.

In these models one language always died out and showed an ominous fit with historical data on the way English has crushed Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, and how Spanish dominates Quechua. The implication was that the writing was clearly on the wall for minor argots.

But Mira and co point out that these early models had some serious limitations. In particular, they do not allow for bilingual speakers, who are a major linguistic force in many societies. When bilinguals are taken into account, the models allow for a co-evolution of two languages, such as Galician and Castillian in north west Spain.

But what of long term stability? Can two languages co-exist in a stable fashion over a long period of time? Or, put another way, is it ever possible that the outcome of the competition between two languages is an uneasy truce?

Today, Mira and and his pals answer this question with a systematic study of the possible outcomes while varying all the important parameters involved. They say that languages can co-exist but that this outcome is hugely sensitive on the initial conditions. “An exogenous injection of just a few speakers into one group or another can determine whether a language lives or dies,” they say.

That means that the survival of an entire language and all the history it encompasses can depend on the actions of just a few individuals.

That looks like good news for the many languages currently under threat. If it is possible to create some bilingual speakers in one of the major language groups, then their chances of survival could be greatly enhanced.

And in this internet enabled world, the ability to communicate with other speakers in almost any part of the planet surely makes this more likely.

Ref: Importance Of Interlinguistic Similarity And Stable Bilingualism When Two Languages Compete

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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