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.

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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.

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