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Language and Culture

Languages Dying
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Almost 7000 languages are spoken in the world, according to what has so far been discovered.  Linguists are continually investigating and analyzing languages.  So the current count of around 7000 is a tentative figure, representing speech forms spoken by about 11,000 distinct ethnic groups.  

These are the speech forms which have so far been identified as distinct enough to be considered separate languages from their closest related speech forms.  Dialects of these thousands of languages multiply the list dozens of times.

Win Some, Lose Some
While more are being discovered, some languages are also dying out.  Cultural and political changes cause people to take up another language, or to "shift language streams."  A prime example of this is the USA, where immigrants from all over Europe, initially, then many other countries, came to America and learned English to communicate with the dominant earlier immigrant group.  

In North American countries, indigenous peoples have likewise lost or are losing their native languages, shifting to the dominant national language as the mother tongue.

As speakers of a language adopt another language, the next generation may grow up learning the adopted language, rather than becoming bilingual, thus diminishing the total number of speakers of the original language of their ethnic group.

Rate of Death
In small population groups, reproduction may not maintain the population of speakers of the original language.  Some linguists think at least 20% of the world's languages are no longer being learned by children.

Native American languages are high on the casualty list, especially in California.  Most native Americans speak perfect English, in addition to their native tongue, but the number of speakers of the native languages has gradually decreased.  Twenty Native American languages died out in the 20th century alone!

New Guinea is another great area of language loss, where there are 100s of languages with only a few speakers.  The Caucasus mountains suffers a similar fate.  It is happening in Africa and Indonesia, also.  Worldwide, language change includes language loss.

Cities – the Great Language Cooking Pot
In the extreme worldwide rush to urbanization in the last half of the 20th century, new ethnic and linguistic situations developed worldwide.  In Africa and Asia, heavy migration from rural areas to urban areas has stirred many regional languages into the urban cooking pot.  (The beginnings of this movement go back to the late 1800s, in the world empires of the European powers.)

Unprecedented worldwide migration has occurred, similarly resulting in large cities with populations from many parts of the world.  When an ethnicity is thus transplanted, aspects of cultures come with them.  These are added to the local mix, resulting in South Asian stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Chinese communities among Spanish speakers in Central American countries.  The immigrant communities learn the local language, but retain their own vocabulary for their cultural aspects and foods.  Locals become aware of their offerings, and borrow the names.  

New Languages and Ethnicities
The second generation may be bilingual, often will learn only the local language.  New forms of mixed ethnicities rise up, within a new multi-lingual mix.  All these languages change through the interaction of the different communities.  New forms of languages begin to develop.

This situation results not only in new ethnicities, but new languages.  Thus the great cities of our current world now serve as great cauldrons of new language and ethnic identities.

For more of the change and development of ethnicity, see my articles and presentations on Assimilation.


Originally published as a general article in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, June 1997
Updated and posted December 2004

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1997, 2004
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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