Linguistic Diversity

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Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Over the last century, many of the world's languages have disappeared. When a language is lost, part of the world's knowledge and culture is also irrevocably lost. Beyond the losses incurred thus far, there is evidence that the trend is increasing as languages such as English, Spanish, and Swahili are displacing languages that are less prominent in the world media and language sphere. Losing humankind's linguistic diversity diminishes our collective ability to perceive and think about the world in a holistic, multi-faceted and rich way.


Everybody who communicates with other people employs language. To a large extent, the language that we use places constraints on what — and how — we think. Everybody has a stake in promoting linguistic diversity although some people are better positioned to help.


In 1992, Michael Krauss, a language professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, predicted that half of the world's languages would become extinct within the next century. Although languages periodically have become extinct throughout history, the frequency of language death today is unprecedented. Krauss reported that of the 20 tongues still known to the state's indigenous people, only two of were being taught to children. A 1990 survey in Australia, cited in a article by W. Wayt Gibbs, "found that 70 of the 90 surviving Aboriginal languages were no longer used regularly by all age groups. The same was true for all but 20 of the 175 Native American languages spoken or remembered in the U.S." The "ethnologue", an Internet resource that lists over 7,000 languages currently in use worldwide, contains over 400 languages which are thought to be in imminent danger of extinction.

It may be that our everyday familiarity with language prevents us from respecting the fact that "...any language is a supreme achievement of a uniquely human collective genius, as divine and endless a mystery as a living organism," as Krauss reminds us. Linguistic diversity can be thought as analogous to biological diversity. In that vein, Krauss asks his readers, "Should we mourn the loss of Eyak or Ubykh any less than the loss of the panda or California condor?"

Many of the imperiled languages are those of indigenous people. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the world-views of indigenous people, especially in relationship to the environment, is one of the vantage points we can't afford to lose. David Crystal, writing in Language Death, states that, "Most westerners are infants in their knowledge of the environment, and how to behave towards it, compared with the indigenous peoples, for whom the environment is part of the business of survival." It's a sobering thought to ponder how much mass media may be determining what's in our "environment" and, hence, in our "knowledge of the environment." Is it true that American teenagers have 63 words for shopping?

Linguists are now employing a variety of techniques to document the world's endangered languages before they are lost forever. This usually involves field work in which a dictionary and grammar guide are produced. Often recordings are made of native speakers. But looking beyond the last-ditch "capture" of a language before it dies forever. a variety of techniques are being used to try to build back a viable language community. A program devised by Leanne Hinton acquired funding to pay both fluent indigenous speakers and younger learners.

What else can be done? David Crystal lists six factors that he believes can help resusitate an endangered language. An endangered language will progress if its speakers:

  1. increase their prestige within the dominant community
  2. increase their wealth relative to the dominant community
  3. increase their legitimate power in the eyes of the dominant community
  4. have a strong presence in the educational system
  5. can write their language down
  6. can make use of electronic technology

Hans-Jurgen Sasse believes that "collective doubts about the usefullness of language loyalty" among the speakers of a language can presage its demise. The speakers themselves can of course strive to maintain their language. The world outside of that language community can play a role by respecting linguistic diversity, often by dropping prejudices and a bias for monolingualism. David Crystal believes that this bias is, at least to some degree, a product of colonialism, that is now being promoted by economics. When bilingualism flourishes, speakers can participate in the world beyond their language community intellectually and commercially while maintaining their own community, identity and heritage.

As with other thorny problems, no single answer exists. Solutions that work in some places have no effects in others. Education of one sort or another will play a large role in language maintenance; the language must be passed on from older to younger generations. Artistic and other forms of cultural expression can serve as an outlet for creative impulses that can also be enjoyed by the world beyond their community.

Introductory graphic, "Endangered Languages of North America," is from the web site,


Due to their particular knowledge and expertise, linguists are often at the forefront of the struggle for linguistic diversity. It was linguists who first alerted us to these issues and have helped develop methods to archive linguistic resources. Non-linguists have important roles to play as well. We need to become aware of humankind's diminishing linguistic diversity and work to preserve and enhance it.

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Over the last century, many of the world's languages have disappeared. When a language is lost, part of the world's knowledge and culture is lost. Losing our Linguistic Diversity diminishes our ability to perceive and think about the world in a multi-faceted and rich way. Due to their knowledge and expertise, linguists are at the forefront of the struggle for Linguistic Diversity. All of us, however, have important roles in preserving and enhancing Linguistic Diversity.

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