Disappearing languages are everywhere. More than 7,000 languages are spoken now, some by only one or two people. In 40 years, perhaps only 3,000 will remain. Endangered languages enrich the world with uncommon ideas and singular ways of communicating them; once they are gone, the world will not get them back.
Why do languages disappear?
A language must have new speakers. It must reestablish itself in every generation, or it will disappear. Even an academic or ritual language, precious as it may be, has no way to renew itself unless it lives on young people's tongues.
Their elders' tongue is taken from the young in schools where it is disregarded by television and the Internet and by the need to belong to the wider world. Some immigrant parents refuse to allow their children a language for fear that an accent will prevent them from succeeding in mass society. Some children grow up to pine for the lost world their parents never shared.
Central governments once forbade children to use certain languages. In some countries, they are still discouraged in the name of national unity. In other places, pressures are more subtle.
English, Spanish, Swahili or Mandarin Chinese appear to be the languages of success and achievement, while the language of the elders is for outsiders, the poor and those cut off from the bright dream of the future.
Why save rare languages?
A language is not merely vocabulary and syntax. It carries culture, myth and worldview, and the history of a society in its names for places and things. Shades of meaning are lost in translation; the language that expresses an idea is itself part of the idea. Knowledge is lost forever when a rare language dies.
The way people address one another in their own language, the way they greet each other and describe their day all changes when they are forced to express their meaning in a common speech.
Embedded in a rare language are local knowledge and specific descriptions of local conditions. The language itself is a description of the world where it is current. When the language dies, a foundation of peoples' connection with their world is destroyed.
Can disappearing languages be revived?
Hebrew, which was for centuries a ceremonial language, is spoken again by children at play. Cornish has been reconstructed. Welsh is spoken in Wales and Navaho in the land of the Dine. Less-spoken languages are languages of instruction in some schools, as well as childhood tongues.
Disappearing languages are sometimes recorded, so the world will have some record of what has been lost. Groups meet to speak their less-known language and to support one another in the resolve to teach it to their children and grandchildren.
Most people in the world speak more than one language. Countries where people speak only English or only Spanish are rare. The natural condition is for everyone's life to be enriched by more than one store of human knowledge.