Earth’s last language?

Earths_last_languageFor millions of years, humans have mastered climate change and maximized environmental resources to arise as one of the planet’s most adaptable organisms. For hundreds of thousands of years, Homo sapiens have created material culture that’s made it possible to occupy nearly every corner of the Earth. For decades, the species has embarked on extraterrestrial exploration, including the dispatch of a planet-hunting spacecraft capable of picking through countless stars outside our solar system (Thompson 2009). Our collective human intellect combines ideas from around the world. This collaboration has given birth to a powerful economic, political, cultural and environmental phenomenon, called globalization. Globalization is the blending of cultures and commerce through complex innovations. For example, advances in telecommunication technologies are connecting businesses, consumers, scholars and activists. Innovations in automation and computerization are promoting universal standards for efficiency and sustainability. Common sets of communication skills and devices are required for sharing complex concepts. There is a growing momentum for combining languages. Scientists and mathematicians have adopted Arabic numerals for mastering and sharing concepts; it seems we’ll merge vocabularies and grammar too.

“Because,” replied a human philosopher to Micromegas, a giant creature visiting Earth from the star Sirius, “it is but reasonable we should quote what we do not comprehend in a language we do not understand” (Voltaire 1927). Voltaire, an 18th century French literary figure known for his wits on civil rights, highlights a key linguistic theory in his writings about Micromegas: understanding a culture is a matter of understanding its dialects.

Knowing a language means others must know it too. It’s not enough to bellow with authority, or simply repeat the signals of others. Countless animals are capable of general vocal and physical gestures, shallow communication skills lacking creativity. On the other hand, humans coordinate behaviors by sharing complicated languages; without them, collaboration is limited, or lost. Our languages constantly add or borrow words, reorganize and uphold rules, as well as sustain unlimited growth. The ability to acquire languages is unique to humans, despite our greatest efforts with animals. We’ve even taught languages to mechanical cohorts, which understand uniquely scalable dialects. High-level machine languages, such as Java, C++ and Visual Basic, overwhelmingly borrow Latin-type letters and English keywords. We’ve engineered systems that are capable of transferring our intentions into mechanical logic. We type lines of purposefully-structured code into a compiler program, which converts our instructions into a machine’s native language. Another program, an interpreter, executes the code line-by-line as the program runs. Each human programmer leaves behind evidence of a digital accent, how they organize code. The processes involved in computer programming demonstrate an important linguistic element that’s essential to effective communication: the exchange of a common vocabulary and grammar.

Humans require interactions to acquire a language. Our reliance on technology drives our desires to expand mechanical languages. Children acquire languages by interacting with other children. Languages evolve to facilitate closer friendships and improve environmental understandings. Throughout life, we try out words, notice patterns and hypothesize rules. We notice errors while applying those rules, and then hypothesize new rules for further refinement. Segregated communities result in regional dialects, as people instinctively modify their methods of communication to meet cultural needs, such as the generalizing of syntax or the acceptance of specific terms. Instincts are biologically determined behaviors that trigger actions for survival, such as finding a mate and succeeding in reproduction. Characteristics or traits that support these objectives are developed for a selective advantage. Isolated people without a language have instinctually constructed their own methods for communication. Pyers, Shusterman, Senghas, Spelke, & Emmorey (2010) have found evidence of a casual effect on language and thought. More specifically, languages allow humans to master spatial reasoning. They studied a group of deaf adults who grew up in rural Nicaragua. After a 1979 revolution hundreds of deaf Nicaragua children were sent to school in Managua, the nation’s capital. The hearing-impaired youth had never been exposed to a language, but had spontaneously created their own. They had basic signs for common nouns, verbs and names. Their vocabulary and syntax exhibited an unlimited expressive power and continuously grew in complexity. It became known as Nicaraguan Sign Language. People who acquired the language in its infancy exhibited less consistency in spatial cognition, according to the researchers. As languages are transformed, so are the cognitive abilities of its newest and youngest learners.

Earth contains almost 7,000 living languages, according to surveys by SIL International (2009), a Dallas-based leader in the identification and documentation of world languages. The organization has catalogued 389 languages with at least one million speakers – accounting for 94 percent of the world’s speakers. Chinese is the most common, with 1.2 billion speakers, of which most speak Mandarin. The Chinese dialect is touted as the second most important language worldwide for business, behind English, according to Bloomberg rankings (Lauerman 2011). The world’s second most prevalent language is Spanish, accounting for another 329 million speakers. English trails close by in third with 328 million. Of Arabic’s 221 million speakers, most use the dialect of Egypt, a country at the center of the Arab World. Given how matured dialects quickly spread, further consolidation appears evident. Measuring a language’s usability and scalability may help determine it’s fate, just as Arabic numbers were widely adopted for practicality.

In the last 500 years, an estimated half of the world’s languages have become extinct, according to the National Geographic Society (Lovgren 2007). David Harrison, a linguistics professor at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, participated in the society’s Enduring Voices Project. He’s also affiliated with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Harrison traveled the world to interview the speakers of critically endangered languages, and then reported that dialects are rapidly disappearing. He expects more than half of the world’s existing languages to die out by the end of this century. Of the 6,909 known living languages listed by SIL International (2009), 473 are endangered, a classification applied when there are only a few speakers still living: 152 in the Pacific region; 182 in the Americas, 84 in Asia, 46 in Africa and nine in Europe. The data reveals that emerging markets may lose languages. Europe’s hardened and connected economies host just 234 languages today, while Asia and Africa have more than 2,000.

English currently stands the best chance at surviving a maturing global economy, according to Martin Dewey (2007), a lecturer in applied linguistics at King’s College London. He studies the relationship between globalization, language diversity and intercultural communication (King’s College London 2011). Dewey believes English wades above the sea of international languages with important fundamental differences: “for the extent of its diffusion geographically; for the enormous cultural diversity of the speakers who use it; and for the infinitely varied domains in which it is found and purposes it serves” (p. 333).

David Graddol is known for his book “The Future of English?” He calls English “a language in transition” because the amount of people who speak English as a second language is set to exceed the number of native speakers (Graddol, 2000). While Europeans settled in North America, their languages migrated too. English flourished. Over time, Native Americans accepted the prevailing linguistic norms under the pressures of foreign occupations. North America once hosted hundreds of native languages, but less than 200 remain today – only 33 seem safe from extinction, since they’re still spoken by both adults and children (Woodbury 2006). While Modern English has catered to mostly mono linguistic interests for hundreds of years, the near future may begin to favor the needs of bilingual learners. According to Graddol, globalization today doesn’t favor uniformity and homogeneity, but “seems to create new, hybrid forms of culture, language and political organization: the results of global influences meeting local traditions, values and social contexts.” The world’s languages are changing in global communities. Telecommunication and Web services, such as social media platforms, have added vocabulary to many languages, such as the exclamation “LOL,” stemming from the initials letters of “laugh out loud (or laughing out loud); the noun “BFF,” from the initials of “best friend forever”; or the verb “defriend,” used to describe unlinking online social-network profiles.

The application of intellectual thought to solve a problem generates innovation. Early methods for refrigeration attempted to keep produce cool in cellars. The mass production of light bulbs made it easy for business owners to remain open after dark. For world languages to combine, there must be a drawback with the use of numerous dialects. Linguistic homogenization may be required to accommodate a global connectivity, as a planetary-wide culture compels consistency in vocabulary and grammar. If technical progress introduces mechanical compilers and interpreters for human languages, a world language may not transpire – permitting both the preservation of regional cultures and international collaborations. However, innovations must surface before too many dialects are lost. Otherwise, a single language appears eminent for world progress. As a global language and culture unfolds and transforms, merging major dialects and customs, mankind’s cognitive abilities and communal respect may improve.

Works Cited

Dewey, M. (2007). English as a lingua franca and globalization: an interconnected perspective. International Journal of Applied Linguistics , 17 (3), 332-354.

Graddol, D. (2000). A guide to forecasting the popularity of the English language in the 21st century. London: The British Council.

Lauerman, J. (2011, August 30). Mandarin Chinese most useful business language after English. Retrieved November 25, 2011, from Bloomberg: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-08-30/mandarin-chinese-most-useful-business-language-after-english-1-.html

Lovgren, S. (2007, September 18). Languages racing to extinction in 5 global “hotspots” . Retrieved November 25, 2011, from National Geographic News: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/09/070918-languages-extinct.html

Pyers, J. E., Shusterman, A., Senghas, A., Spelke, E. S., & Emmorey, K. (2010). Evidence from an emerging sign language reveals that language supports spatial cognition. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America , 107 (27), 12116-12120.

SIL International. (2009). Endangered languages. Retrieved November 25, 2011, from Ethnologue: Languages of the World: http://www.ethnologue.com/nearly_extinct.asp

SIL International. (2009). Statistical summaries. Retrieved November 25, 2011, from Ethnologue: Languages of the World: http://www.ethnologue.com/ethno_docs/distribution.asp?by=size

Voltaire, F.-M. A. (1927). Complete romances of Voltaire. New York: Walter J. Black, Inc.

Woodbury, A. C. (2006). What is an endangered language? Retrieved November 26, 2011, from Linguistic Society of America: http://www.lsadc.org/info/pdf_files/Endangered_Languages.pdf

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