Which of the world’s languages are due to disappear?

by on August 9, 2014 at 2:09 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

Economist David Clingingsmith has a 2013 paper on this topic (pdf).  It seems that languages are stable at a lower margin of speaking community than I would have expected:

Scholars have long conjectured that the return to knowing a language increases with the number of speakers. Recent work argues that long-run economic and political integration accentuate this advantage, leading larger languages to increase their population share. I show that, to the contrary, language size and growth are uncorrelated for languages with 35,000 speakers. I incorporate this finding into an evolutionary model of language population dynamics. The model’s steady-state follows a power law and precisely fits the size distribution of the 1,900 languages with 35,000 speakers. Simulations suggest the extinction of 40% of languages with < 35,000 speakers within 100 years.

You will find other interesting papers by Clingingsmith here.

Andreas Moser August 9, 2014 at 2:48 am

Why wouldn’t the languages be stable? You learn them automatically as a child, and as you can easily learn 2 or 3 languages at the same time, nothing is lost if you also learn your parent’s ancient Inca dialect. You can still learn English and/or Spanish, and parents might (rightfully) think that you’ll learn these languages at school anyway.

Granted, no external person will learn these mini-languages, but as long as the respective population is not wiped out by the Ebola virus or an earthquake, why should their numbers dwindle?

I could only imagine that these mini languages get lost as their speakers find a mate in a different cultural group and then they won’t be able to pass it on that easily to their children.

Aidan August 9, 2014 at 4:51 am

Agreed.

Even if a person only speaks one language, they tend to speak a number of different varieties of that language in different situations. The language used by a person to speak with or write to family members, friends, colleagues, non-native speakers, strangers, educators and persons in positions of power will differ considerably in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation, register and even grammar. The English you would use to chat to your oldest friend in a bar is probably pretty different from the English you would use to give a presentation to a group of strangers.

This variety of language means that it is possible to have a stable linguistic equilibrium can be surprisingly rich and varied, provided that each language has a distinct use. For example, it would be pretty normal for a Lebanese Armenian to switch between four or more languages in the course of a single day: an Armenian conversation with family members in the morning, followed by a Lebanese Arabic chat with a shopkeeper, followed by reading a French-language newspaper and having a workplace meeting with international colleagues in English.

Major international cities like San Francisco, London, New York, Singapore, Dubai, and Mumbai are all remarkable for their linguistic diversity, rather than for the overwhelming presence of a single, dominant language. It’s not as if a there’s only enough space for one language in a person’s head and, provided that a community of people using a language for a specific purpose exists, there is no reason why smaller languages shouldn’t be able to survive.

Houston, Minneapolis, Dearborn August 9, 2014 at 2:14 pm

San Francisco? Have you been there lately?

Slocum August 9, 2014 at 7:57 am

It seems that language tend to disappear not because of the encroachment of a second, international language like English, but because they’re replaced by a dominant national language (e.g. Occitan and Breton in France, Walon in Belgium).

Das August 9, 2014 at 9:47 am

‘because they’re replaced by a dominant national language’
Exactly.

Just look at America: At least 90% of US citizens should have ancestors who did not speak english as their primary language and yet, today, you will be hard pressed to find 2nd or 3rd generation American’s who speak a different language than english like it was their native language.

As soon as speaking the dominant language offers a significant advantage over keeping to your inherented language people will give their language up.
This can be a good thing (immigrants integrating into society) or a bad thing (imperialists in the widest sense crowding out native culture).

But their is no “learning them automatically as a child” when the conditions are unfavorable.

Das August 9, 2014 at 9:47 am

there*

Jan August 9, 2014 at 10:19 am

It only takes a generation or two for this transition to take hold. I met many people in former Soviet countries who did not speak their native country’s language in the early 2000s, despite the fact they were of the same ethnicity as the titular nation. Most of these folks were middle aged and grew up speaking only Russian. This was because that was the language most useful in the Soviet period, Russian schools were plentiful and their parents had probably discouraged them from speaking the local language despite speaking it well themselves. A lot of these people surely understand the local language just fine, but have had no practice speaking it and would find it difficult to learn later in life. Many of them are of a sandwich generation whose parents and children likely spoke and do speak the country’s language.

JC August 9, 2014 at 11:37 am

I learned one language as a child and then English after I was four. My parents spoke the original language at home and I (and my siblings) would respond in English. I live and work in English but still have a working comprehension of my mother tongue. It would not take very many months of immersion for me to become fully articulate in the mother tongue.

Kevin August 9, 2014 at 1:03 pm

@JC – I suspect most people in your not-uncommon situation will never have the motivation to immerse themselves in their mother tongue. More importantly, I’d be very surprised if the children of such parents have even a vague working comprehension of the mother language, and regardless of what their parents might do (and their grandparents wishes that they could share this language), that next generation will have lost any meaningful connection to the language.

Houston, Minneapolis, Dearborn August 9, 2014 at 2:32 pm

They may all be Slavs, but the Russian-only speakers in the former captive countries are mostly descended from Russian invaders who lived there as colonial masters. The victims were forced to learn Russian, but are abandoning it to the distress of the Russian leftovers and mother country (and reflexive apologists for communism).

And, the Russian speakers aren’t ethnically related to natives in the Baltics and ‘stans. More similar to the Han in Tibet.

Jan August 9, 2014 at 3:12 pm

@Houston, I am actually referring to a subset of the non-Slavs in these countries–Uzbeks, Turkmen, Armenians and Georgians. Yes, the Slavs who still reside in these countries are in a similar situation in that they mostly only know Russian but are surrounded by a growing number of speakers of the local language. It depends which nation you go to and whether you are in a large city, but many of the younger people in former Soviet countries don’t even know the most rudimentary Russian. I imagine this creates communication barriers between some older Russian speakers and their own grandchildren. I make no judgment on whether these countries should be promoting their native languages over Russian, but it is happening and English is fast replacing Russian as people’s second language in this part of the world.

PS family is from Dearborn

JC August 9, 2014 at 6:15 pm

@kevin – I agree. I would have to move to the old country for six months to become proficient. My children know perhaps half a dozen words in my mother tongue:
“grandmother”, “grandfather”, “meatballs”, “thank you for the meal” and “you’re welcome (for the meal)”.

Family and food – the essentials of every culture.

Mark Thorson August 9, 2014 at 10:42 am

When I met my great-grandmother, I couldn’t talk to her because she didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Japanese.

mkt August 9, 2014 at 3:36 pm

That was pretty much the situation with me and my grandparents. They all immigrated from Japan but never learned more than perhaps a couple of hundred words of English. I know maybe a dozen Japanese words. My parents’ situation was very similar to what JC describes above, although I think their level of comprehension of their parent’s language is lower than his .

But to return to the original question: yeah, immigrants lose their native language quickly, in about two generations. But if 35,000 native speakers stay put instead of immigrating to the US, are there economic or cultural forces which might cause them to give up their language?

Nathan W August 9, 2014 at 8:15 pm

Clearly you have only learned languages which are quite closely related.

Learning languages opens the mind in ways that cannot be understood unless you have gone through the process.

English, then plus Spanish, might open your mind a bit if you’re open to learning about subtle inference rather than imagining that tings translate directly.

It is an enormous loss to the collective amassment of cultural and philosophical knowledge and experience which has been developed and passed down. For starters, languages which may go extinct should be documented extensively, especially the stories which capture ideals through role models, archetypes (good and bad), etc.

Steve Sailer August 9, 2014 at 3:53 am

Frisian seems to keep going despite being surrounded by more dominant languages in northwestern Europe.

Learning English off subtitled American movies and TV seems pretty easy these days for northern Europeans, so there’s probably no practical reason to give up teaching your infants your family language since they’ll pick up English and maybe German from TV and can study Dutch in school.

Steve Sailer August 9, 2014 at 4:10 am

To extend this idea, I suspect that modern electronic communications can keep young people in touch over the phone more easily with relatives, such as grandparents, who speak the old language. And it’s not very hard for contemporary children to learn the world’s most economically useful language, English, just from watching TV. So, why not keep the family language because the kid will learn English anyway?

The name Doutzen Kroes comes up in this line of thinking.

Bill August 9, 2014 at 4:48 am

Yeah, but after listening to English from Europeans who pick it up from TV, what you hear are

O My God

Yuck

Ew

Not exactly English, but what teenagers take as English.

dearieme August 9, 2014 at 5:30 am

It’s just that English is disappearing under the weight of Californication.

Houston, Minneapolis, Dearborn August 9, 2014 at 2:16 pm

Oh mellow out, dude.

Mark Thorson August 9, 2014 at 10:46 am

No, they’re not. The Frisians are surrounded by water, and that’s probably a big help in keeping their tiny obscure language alive.

JonFraz August 10, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Frisan is found on islands, but also on the mainland. The key is that Frisian developed in the areas where it is currently found; its speakers were never removed or relocated (as Indian tribes in the North America and linguistic minorities in the Soviet Union were). In the Dutch revolt against Spain the Frisians were respected as allies, and given equal rights in the new Dutch Republic. Frisian was never legally banned or disadvantaged. And the Friesland was something of a rural backwater that never attracted significant inmigration by the Dutch.

Kevin August 9, 2014 at 1:12 pm

I think this completely ignores the natural behavioral tendencies of children and adolescents. I’ve know scores of second and third generation immigrant families, and I’ve heard the parents and grandparents lament how the generation born in the US not only prefer English, but actively resist efforts to teach them their family’s native tongue.

On a logical basis, you’re correct that there’s no practical reason. But in the real world, unless a child is living in a lower class immigrant community where the native tongue is the dominate language, kids aren’t interested in holding on to their cultural heritage. I think even small amounts of social mobility account for this. You can’t keep them down on the farm, and you can’t make them hold on to a language that isn’t relevant to their adolescent and teen lives.

Houston, Minneapolis, Dearborn August 9, 2014 at 2:21 pm

To be fair to those kids, their ancestors ditched the cultural heritage first by leaving the homeland for the U.S. Why should the kids keep eating cabbage and deep fried everything and wearing funny clothes?

Bill August 9, 2014 at 4:00 am

Will dialects and accents be the first to go?

RoyM August 9, 2014 at 9:33 am

Depends on the political purpose of the dialect or accent. Look at the persistence of the Lowlands dialect, the Irish brogue, and regional accents in the US. These all serve to reify political identifications and regional pride, German has some similarities.

For example the Texas accent is often acquired by immigrants born out of state, while many native Texans lose it after childhood or never acquire it. In linguistic studies in the early 90s it was found that the speaker’s attitude about Texas was the largest factor. The only subsequent research I have seen suggests that political affiliation has no effect on accent on the right side of the, self reported, spectrum but made a major difference on the left, with more pronounced accent acquisition among those identifying as Liberal Democrats. Aka the Molly Ivins affect (Ivins was born in Monterey, CA, attended Smith and Columbia, and first worked for the Minneapolis Tribune). As a native Texan who found her mostly annoying I believe her accent was genuine.

Is this any different from Catalonia? Catala seems to be booming of late. It used to be you only were somewhat annoyed by Catalans claiming to not speak Spanish, now it is generally a good idea to shout at them in terrible French like a bad imitation of that horrible class where you had to sing Lo brisa pe together. I have found that this works wonders in gaining cooperation and it seems to terrify some pickpockets.

TrollsWillTroll August 9, 2014 at 9:47 am

it seems to terrify some pickpockets

Is that sentence your way of telling us that if we read your whole post that we were just trolled? Do pickpockets in Barcelona wear a scarlet P for pickpocket that makes them readily identifiable?

Jan August 9, 2014 at 3:18 pm

Interesting. I lived in Dallas as young man but moved to my parents’ native Michigan early in high school. Dallas was brimming with northern transplants at the time, so only a few of my friends and family acquaintances had strong Texas accents. However, upon returning to visit during college I noticed that almost all my friends had developed at least a bit of a twang, if not the full Rick Perry drawl.

Steve Sailer August 9, 2014 at 5:23 pm

When I was at Rice in Houston in the 1970s, I noticed that classmates’ brothers who attended Texas A&M or the like had more pronounced Texan accents than their brothers at Rice.

andrew' August 9, 2014 at 4:43 am

We could make a star-trek-style vocal translator today. I’m not sure that will mean extinction or preservation.

cfh August 9, 2014 at 7:15 am

My Irish immigrant grandparents, seeking to “pass”, would pretend to no knowledge of the Gaelic.

Midas August 9, 2014 at 10:01 am

It’s a good thing we sent a Rosetta disc to a piece of rock in space. That will solve the problem. :D

Languages can go extinct for all I care. It’s not like they have feelings. *sadpuppyface*

Nathan W August 9, 2014 at 8:20 pm

C’est dur, mais … c’est la vie.

La joie de vivire, c’est un peu de … je ne sais quoi, mais ca rend la vie mieux quand on a plus de manieres a s’exprimer.

La langue ne se traduit jamais directement. Il y a des petits bijoux philosophiques et culturelles qui se cachent tout partout, si on les cherches ou non.

C’est quoi ca? Un exemple.

… at least the Middle Kingdom has always been explicit about it Sinocentric way of viewing the world.

liberalarts August 9, 2014 at 10:21 pm

Not yet mentioned, but I suspect that marriage/coupling is a significant factor in languages being lost. My parents grew up in homes that spoke different german dialects, and that was the end of that. To maintain culture and language, one has to be fully committing to marry and continue that culture at home. The more ethnically diverse the culture, the harder that is. It was easier in agrarian economies where people could easily marry and work within pockets of immigrants, but college education and career specialization make that virtually impossible.

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