Recently I wrote about my surprising discovery that there are dozens of languages facing extinction in my home province of British Columbia, in Canada. But Canada is not unique in terms of the number of languages threatened with extinction. Across the globe a language dies every 14 days.
According to the Ethnologue, here is the situation in France:
- Zarphatic, a language, formerly spoken among the Jewish communities of northern France, is extinct
- Shuadit, or Chouhadite, the Jewish language of southern France, is extinct
- Franco-Provençal (Francoprovençal) or Arpitan, is dying
- Breton, a Celtic language spoken in Brittany, is diminishing
- Occitan, a Romance language spoken mainly in southern France, is threatened
- Erromintxela, the distinctive language of a group of 500 or so Romani in France, is threatened.
- Corsican, a statutory provincial working language on the island of Corsica, is developing
- Picard, or Chti, a language spoken in two regions in the far north of France, is developing
But why should we care when a language we may never even have heard of disappears?
Don’t get me wrong, I care passionately about languages. I just never thought about what happens when a language like Squamish, in Canada, or Breton, in France, becomes endangered.
When I first learned that languages that had been with us for millennia were in imminent danger, it was akin to hearing that manual typewriters are no longer manufactured. They still build manual typewriters, of course, but that’s how irrelevant aboriginal languages seemed to me.
I was wrong.
What changed my mind was this: A study by Hallet et al. looked at a number of cultural variables and found that language loss had the highest correlation with youth suicide. Looking at 150 tribes in B.C. they found that where fewer than half of the elders still knew their ancient language, the young were six times more likely to take their own lives. During the study period, just one young person in the language-retained tribes committed suicide compared to 84 young people from the language-lost tribes.
Young people from tribes who had lost their language were six times more likely to commit suicide.
When we discuss language extinction, some people point out that languages die off when they become irrelevant to young people. However, I believe this study shows that even very old languages are relevant because they carry the key to identity, self-esteem and belonging. You need only look at the countries where settler populations have ravaged the indigenous cultures to see the full impact of language extermination.
— Lori Thicke