Can Minority Languages Be Saved? Globalization vs. Culture
by Eric Garland
The increasing mobility of people, goods, and information has driven
a powerful trend toward cultural uniformity and the extinction of local
languages. But languages that have young people, business, and government
on their side are alive and thriving.
Globalized economics and media are changing the face of culture around
the globe, reducing the number of languages that humans speak. As the world
economy becomes more integrated, a common tongue has become more important
than ever to promote commerce, and that puts speakers of regional dialects
and minority languages at a distinct disadvantage. In addition, telecommunications
has pressured languages to become more standardized, further squeezing local
variations of language.
Over the past 500 years, as nationstates developed and became more
centralized, regional dialects and minority languages have been dominated
by the centrist dialects of the ruling parties. Cornish has given way to
English, Breton to French, Bavarian to High German, and Fu-jian-wa to Cantonese.
Linguists concur that minority languages all over the world are giving way
to more dominant languages, such as English, Mandarin, and Spanish, among
others. The realities of commerce and the seductive power of world pop
culture are placing pressure on speakers of minority languages to learn
majority languages or suffer the consequences: greater difficulty doing
business, less access to information, etc.
These pressures are inducing a rapid die-off of languages around the world.
Languages have been disappearing steadily, with 3,000 of the world's languages
predicted to disappear in the next 100 years. According to the United Nations
Environment Program, there are 5,000 to7,000 spoken languages in the world,
with 4,000 to 5,000 of these classed as indigenous, used by native tribes.
More than 2,500 are in danger of immediate extinction, and many more are losing
their link with the natural world, becoming museum pieces rather than living languages.
Futurists have noted this loss with no little despair, for significant, culturally
specific information may disappear along with a language. For instance, knowledge
about unique medicines and treatments used by aboriginal groups could be lost forever
if the language used to transmit that information is banned by a majority culture.
The common wisdom is that globalization is the wave of the future, and in many
respects this is undeniable. However, swept up in this conventional wisdom is the
notion that languages and cultures will simply cease to exist, and people will instead
choose "global" cultures and languages that will transcend boundaries.
Read the rest of the article (PDF format, 419K)
About the Author
Eric Garland is the principal of Competitive
Futures Inc., a futures consultancy. This article was first published
in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2006 edition.