by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Horst Herget

In the course of doing fieldwork in Nigeria and Cameroon, where for decades he has been studying the history and phonology of Indigenous African languages, York University linguistics Professor Bruce Connell encountered just two surviving speakers of a Nigerian language spoken only by blacksmiths, casting doubt on its future survival. It’s not an isolated problem.

“There are 7,000-plus languages in the world,” says Connell, an endangered language specialist at Glendon College, “and the most dire prediction is that only 10 per cent of those languages will be around at the end of the century.”

Many Canadian families have experienced language endangerment in the home. For all of the Indigenous languages in Canada, intergenerational transmission is weak or broken, and there’s ample anecdotal evidence of immigrants who, after leaving their country of origin, fail to teach their first language to their children once they resettle.

Connell says a language becomes endangered when it’s not passed on to the next generation.

“When you look at the ecology of endangered languages,” Connell explains, “you see several common factors, and one is the desire for a better life. For some, that means learning to speak English, or another dominant language, in order to advance. The thinking is, you don’t need the old language in order to get ahead.”

But doesn’t that speak to our adaptability as a species? Is language death a part of evolution, and not the catastrophe some might think it is? Emphatically not, says Connell, a member of the Linguistics and Language Studies program at the Department of Multidisciplinary Studies.

According to his ongoing research, languages have never been as vulnerable to extinction as they are today. It’s a new and pressing problem.

“We’ve reached a critical juncture in the history of civilization,” Connell says. “Linguistic diversity and diversity of worldviews are important to the advancement of humanity.”

What can be done about it?

It’s a key question, and one that’s difficult to answer in a nutshell. Recognizing that languages exist in an ecology, as Connell teaches his students, points to two important considerations. The first is that the strategy adopted for any one language will depend on its particular situation. Second, from this point of view, what is important is preserving language ecologies, the conditions that sustain a language, rather than individual languages. In this way, languages may follow a “natural” evolution and not be wiped out. Connell offers up the example of Old English, which didn’t die but transformed over time to become what many of us – in English Canada – speak today.

Language is a living thing that will adapt in accordance with shifting cultural conditions. Some of those conditions may even help preserve languages under the threat of extinction. Social media can be a tool to breathe new life into endangered languages by connecting speakers with one another, sometimes across great distances. Language revitalization by means of internet technology is occurring in Lakota-speaking communities in the U.S., with Yucatec Maya – an Indigenous language of Mexico – as well as among the Igorot, an Indigenous people living in the Cordillera Mountain Range in the Philippines.

In Toronto, Connell has been observing how Chimwiini, a Bantu language spoken in Somalia and its diaspora, is being kept alive by means of the internet and social media. These efforts all contribute to salvaging unique forms of communication that might otherwise be lost. “Language is essential to human existence,” he says, “so we have to take it seriously.”  

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