Extinction of Languages – Report from Hong Kong

Speakers of large, mainstream languages probably don’t give much thought to the problems facing small languages which are often under threat. But from a personal perspective, as I was raised by a speaker of Welsh (although I don’t speak it myself) I have had a lot to do with a language which was previously under threat of extinction.

Languages are not just a means of communication. They are a receptacle for a culture’s heritage – through works of art, literature, poetry, songs and through the way the culture is conceived of and described. The loss of a language through extinction is more than just the loss of a means of communication. It is also the loss of the cultural currency that language carried.

Human practices such as slavery and colonisation saw the destruction of many languages. Yet in the modern age, languages are under threat for a different reason. The prevalence of certain languages, though media, the internet and through the push of education systems to teach useful languages in a cost effective way, are all potential threats to smaller languages.

For a language to grow and evolve, there needs to be a core number of speakers and there needs to be aspects which nurture a language – such as debate and artistic endeavour. It should be remembered that there was a time when English was seen as a second class language – not the language of the powerful, the elite or the educated. Yet by producing texts – primarily the Bible, in English, meant that English slowly gained in status and strength. But there is no reason to believe that it will always be an important world language.  We have seen the rise and decline of many important languages, some, like Latin, to the virtual point of extinction.

Languages need respect and not discouragement if they are going to thrive. And the world is richer for having more languages.

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