This article is part of the feature „Great guys. Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt

Never To Be Heard Again!

5 min read

with Mandana Seyfeddinipur
Mandana Seyfeddinipur, you are a collector of vanishing languages—how does that work, exactly?

Mandana Seyfeddinipur: “Collector”—that sounds really funny in German—as if hunters went out, bagged up languages, and stashed them away somewhere. But actually, that’s not that far removed from our work. Our world is changing at an incredible pace, also where languages are concerned: They are disappearing as fast as never before. Our program awards scholarships to linguists all over the world so that they can document these languages, for example in Papua New Guinea, Siberia or South America.

Why is it so urgent to document all these languages?

Of the 7,000 languages estimated to exist, half will have disappeared by the end of this century. 50 percent of the world’s population speaks a mere 25 languages, in other words major languages such as Mandarin, Spanish, English or German. The other 6,000 or more languages are spoken by the rest of the world. This means there are a multitude of minor languages with only 300 to 75,000 speakers. And most of these minor languages have never been written down. As a consequence, linguistic diversity is disappearing before our eyes without leaving a trace!

Why are so many languages disappearing?

The reasons are climate change, globalization, and modernization. When people in rural areas see no future for themselves, they move to the cities. Once there, they make sure that their children speak the majority language that affords them the best economic and social opportunities. And as soon as the children cease to learn their traditional language, it’s done for. This language changeover is a normal process, of course: The evolution of languages, the coming and going of dialects—this is a process that has always been with us. Latin is no longer spoken, after all. But the speed at which this is happening today is absolutely unprecedented. Scientists sometimes compare it to the fifth mass extinction event, when the dinosaurs died out.

Can you give an example?

I was just in Yunnan, China, where we taught 30 Chinese students. They told us that children under the age of ten are no longer able to speak certain local languages at all. Their age is a reflection of the point in time at which the process of China’s urbanization and modernization began to set inThe kids may still speak their traditional language at home, but at school, they learn everything in Mandarin and talk to each other in Mandarin—and the parents make sure their children can do it proficiently. Thus, the young ones no longer learn the language of their place of origin. All it takes from there is two more generations and the language disappears along with its last speakers.

Just to play devil’s advocate: How terrible is it for the world if a few minor languages or dialects die?

You have to stop and think about why we humans have developed this huge variety of languages throughout our history: It’s a storehouse that contains the cumulative knowledge of mankind: knowledge about plants, medicine, farming, cooking, about social realities and relationships. Our history also influences our languages. And we are losing this incredible diversity before we have even begun to understand it. What’s more, our museums are full of objects from earlier days— but the knowledge about what these objects mean lies in the corresponding languages!

Do you have priorities when you go about collecting?

It’s a race against time. Every two weeks a language dies. Our priority is on the most endangered languages; we simply have no time at the moment to look after the dialects. Plus, there’s not a lot of linguists who do this work. And we are the only ones who promote this documentation across the world. The Volkswagen Foundation subsidized our program for ten years, but this funding has now expired. We don’t have a powerful backer like the World Health Organization that can come to our aid.

Looking at the map of endangered languages, it would appear that not only remote regions are affected, but Europe and Germany as well.

Yes of course. In Europe, linguistic diversity has already been erased to a significant degree. In Germany, you can cite the Frisian dialect as an example where there’s not much left to keep alive. By the way, we linguists do not intervene in the process ourselves. We just document it for as long as we can. If the local community is interested in preserving a language, the linguist can help as an advisor. One can write children’s books using the available linguistic material, for example. The only problem is, you can teach children at school for two hours a week as much as you want, but if they don’t speak the language outside the class and have no reason to speak it, then the language will not survive.

Doesn’t multilingualism pose a challenge for children?

No, but we do still have parents who think children won’t learn any language properly if they grow up with several languages. This misconception is astonishing, given that a great deal of research has proven the advantages of multilingualism. When friends ask me my opinion on this as a linguist, I always give the following example: Give one child a ball and another child a ball plus a cooking spoon and a pot. Let both children play with their respective objects for three days. Which child will probably have learned more in the end? Then the parents always give me this look and ask, “You mean it’s that simple?” And I say: “That’s exactly how simple it can be.”

Das Interview führte Antje Weber.

Mandana Seyfeddinipur

Dr. Mandana Seyfeddinipur studied linguistics in Berlin (amongst other subjects) and earned her doctorate in Nijmegen. She currently heads the SOAS World Languages Institute in London and researches the psychology and gestural syntax of languages.