Without question, there will be aneed for common languages, as stan-dardization allows growth in soft-ware and in people. But global pros-perity and new technologies mayalso allow smaller cultures to pre-serve their niches. It is clear fromseveral modern examples that a dy-ing or dead language can turnaround and become vibrant again,depending on people’s determina-tion and the government policiesthat are put in place.
Reversing Language Loss
The idea of saving languages isvery modern. When linguisticsscholar Joshua A. Fishman firstwrote of “reversing language shift”in his book of that title (1990), one re-viewer actually laughed at the no-tion. The conventional wisdomamong linguists, historians, and so-ciologists was that, if your cultureand language were on the way out,their doom was assured in a global-ized world. After all, the prevailingtrends are toward globalization anda unified world. Tiny dialects—suchas Breton, the Celtic language spo-ken in Brittany, a province on thenorthwestern coast of France—arenot a benefit in the global economy,since they are difficult to learn,poorly adapted to modern life, andunintelligible to almost everyone be-yond a small region.Learning or relearning a nativelanguage is often a political state-ment, an act of self-definition, onethat brings solidarity with our neigh- bors. It is political power, culturalreverence, and perhaps a feeling of control in a world where politicaland cultural borders are collapsingall around us. Minority languagesmay also have a place alongside ma- jority forms of communication. TheInternational Committee for the De-fense of the Breton Language sug-gests that early bilingualism canhelp prepare young people to masterseveral languages, which will be anadvantage—if not a necessity—forthe future in Europe.Changing world geopolitics is al-ready reforming the pressures onlanguages. The fall of the SovietUnion actually spurred a trendtoward reversing language loss. Inmany of the former Soviet republics,older Turkic languages have been re-vived, now that the Russian influ-ence is gone. Turkey is spending $1.5 billion to encourage the resurgenceof Turkish throughout the region.Language is power, economic andotherwise, and the Turks are capital-izing on the possibility of extendingtheir reach, causing a reverse of lan-guage shift in the region.
32 THE FUTURIST
way to English, Breton to French,Bavarian to High German, andFu-jian-wa to Cantonese. Linguistsconcur that minority languages allover the world are giving way tomore dominant languages, such asEnglish, Mandarin, and Spanish,among others. The realities of com-merce and the seductive power of world pop culture are placing pres-sure on speakers of minority lan-guages to learn majority languagesor suffer the consequences: greaterdifficulty doing business, less accessto information, etc.These pressures are inducing arapid die-off of languages aroundthe world. Languages have been dis-appearing steadily, with 3,000 of theworld’s languages predicted to dis-appear in the next 100 years. Accord-ing to the United Nations Environ-ment Program, there are 5,000 to7,000 spoken languages in the world,with 4,000 to 5,000 of these classed asindigenous, used by native tribes.More than 2,500 are in danger of im-mediate extinction, and many moreare losing their link with the naturalworld, becoming museum piecesrather than living languages.Futurists have noted this loss withno little despair, for significant, cul-turally specific information may dis-appear along with a language. Forinstance, knowledge about uniquemedicines and treatments used byaboriginal groups could be lost for-ever if the language used to transmitthat information is banned by a ma- jority culture.The common wisdom is that glob-alization is the wave of the future,and in many respects this is undeni-able. However, swept up in this con-ventional wisdom is the notion thatlanguages and cultures will simplycease to exist, and people will in-stead choose “global” cultures andlanguages that will transcend boundaries.This is not the only potentialscenario. It is possible for globaliza-tion and new technology to safe-guard cultural identity while simul-taneously allowing free exchanges of ideas and goods. For centuries, di-alects and languages have been uni-fying to facilitate national identity,scientific research, and commerce.
AreaLiving LanguagesNumber of Speakers
Count Percentage Count Percentage
Africa2,09230.3%675.9 million11.8%Americas1,00214.547.5 million0.8Asia2,26932.83,489.9 million61.0Europe2393.51,504.4 million26.3Pacific1,31019.06.1 million0.1World6,912100.05,723.9 million100.0
Note: A living language is defined as one that is the first language of at least one speaker.Extinct languages that are spoken as a second language are excluded. Total world languagespeakers do not reflect total population because of insufficient data for some languages.
Global Distribution of Living Languages
Source: Ethnologue, 15th edition. Edited by Raymond G. Gordon Jr., SIL International,www.ethnologue.com.