Every day ancient languages are falling without a whisper.

But why should we care that a language we’ve never even heard of was here yesterday and now is gone?

Don’t get me wrong, I care passionately about how developing world languages can empower people to improve their lives. I just never thought about the aboriginal languages in my own country.

When I first learned that languages that had been with us for millennia were in imminent danger, it was akin to hearing that manual typewriters are no longer manufactured. They still build manual typewriters, of course, but that’s how irrelevant aboriginal languages seemed to me.

I was wrong.

I thought this way before an obscure report connecting up language loss to youth self harm helped me see what our language really means to each one of us. And before I met a young First Nations woman named Becky Campbell.


Vanishing voices: Squamish has 8 speakers left. Haida has around 30.

In talking about extinction of languages such as Squamish and Haida, linguists like the renowned National Geographic Fellow David Harrison refer to the loss of linguistic diversity as being every bit as dire as the loss of biodiversity.

In his latest book, The Last Speaker, Harrison says that when we lose a language we lose “ancient systems of knowledge” as well as “a mental catalogue of mankind’s attempts to make sense of the world and harness its resources for human survival.”

Speaking of the knowledge that’s trapped in indigenous languages, he says “what they know …. may someday save us.”

Writing about their Enduring Voices project, National Geographic tells us:

“By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth—many of them not yet recorded—may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain.”

Others say, simply, “When our language dies, so will our culture.”

In fact, as aboriginal languages are subsumed by strong national languages in countries like Canada, the U.S., Australia, Mexico and Russia, this cultural loss takes a personal toll on the young people most of all.

In a future blog I will share my “ah-ha” moment about how language loss affects young people, blowing away the arguments that ancient languages have as much relevance in today’s society as manual typewriters. And I’ll also tell you what Becky Campbell is doing about it.

4 thoughts on “If a Tree Falls in the Forest…

  1. I wonder how tightly linked are language, culture, knowledge. I think knowledge disappears, because it is not longer needed. My grandparents knew a lot about planting and harvesting all sorts of plants. I have no need for this knowledge, I go to the supermarket to buy my food.

    Similarly with cultural practices, many of which have lost need and appeal to the next generation, whose horizon of experience has grown beyond the small village.

    Language changes because the way we life our lives changes. Vocabulary disappears and new vocabulary enters. Keeping a language alive does not keep culture alive not does it guarantee the preservation of knowledge. This can only be guaranteed by preserving the way of living, which in most cases may not be a good thing and may not be what the young members of a community want.

    Nevertheless, every people should be allowed and supported in keeping their language alive, having it develop to grow and adapt to whatever changes happen in their day-to-day lives or in their environment.

  2. Pingback: My Province is a Language Hotspot? | Lori Thicke

  3. Well the other way of looking at it is that cultural knowledge dies with the language. It isn’t necessarily practical – how to hunt and fish, though that might be useful too – but a worldview or set of values. It’s all part of the richness of the planet, and it’s lost.

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