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How climate change is killing languages

Forced migration causes language extinction predominantly. Disasters drive displacements in regions that are richest in languages.

By Ground Report
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Forced migration causes language extinction predominantly. Environmental disasters drive these displacements in the regions that are richest in languages. On 2 May 2023, Pauline Stensgar, of Keller, Washington State, passed away at the age of 96. She carried her language with her as she departed.

The Spokesman-Review in Spokane reported that the last fluent speaker of the n̓xaʔm̓xčín̓ (pronounced 'in-ha-um-cheen') language was her. Some groups of Native Americans in the Washington State region had spoken the language.

Thanks to Stensgar's love for her language, it is not completely lost to us. Stensgar and Christopher Parkin, the principal of the Salish School of Spokane, had created six textbooks and more than 100 recordings of the language together.

Languages hold unique cultural knowledge

Anyone interested can still learn n̓xaʔm̓xčín̓. But for many extinct languages, we're not so lucky. They can be lost to us forever.

Language is uniquely human, our cognitive capacities on full display.

Each speaker of the more than 7,000 living languages in the world today encodes the worldview, history, and knowledge of their respective language. Local plants, including their medicinal uses, hold unique knowledge that many endangered languages, rapidly losing speakers, possess.

These languages also preserve knowledge on animals and how to live sustainably in the local environment. This implies that not only are languages lost, but we also forfeit knowledge that can assist us in living better, healthier, and more sustainable lives.

Source: Two centuries of spreading language loss. Simons (2019)World Bank Official Boundaries • James Goldie, 360info

Languages are lost when speakers no longer pass them on to their children. Minority language speakers often switch to languages that offer economic advantages, resulting in this occurrence. Migration significantly contributes to this phenomenon. For instance, the majority of second-generation immigrants in the US fluently speak English, but not their parents' languages.

English is economically and culturally beneficial to them, but their parents' languages are not.

The previous migrations have had an impact on the endangerment of Indigenous languages, as revealed by examining where the majority of languages are endangered. In 2021, the endangerment of Indigenous languages in the US reached 98 per cent, while in Australia, it was 89 per cent.

Colonial past, European immigration influence

Both countries have a colonial history and have seen mass immigration from Europe in previous centuries.

These earlier migrations affect Indigenous languages to this day; we continue losing languages in these countries because speakers no longer pass them on to future generations and switch to English instead. 

So, tomorrow's language loss is likely to be today's migration. Current migration patterns are greatly influenced by forced migration. The Global Trends Report 2022 states that more than 108 million people were forcibly displaced in 2022. Within their own countries, about 61 million of them experienced displacement.

Environmental disasters, such as floods and storms, forced more than half of those internally displaced to leave their homes. Conflict and violence internally displaced the remaining people. Conflict and violence accounted for almost all internal displacement in Europe and Central Asia in 2022.

Weather-related disasters, such as floods and storms, caused almost all internal displacement in South Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific, in contrast. South Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific, which are particularly affected by environmental disasters, have some of the most linguistically diverse countries.

Indonesia, India, Philippines have endangered languages

At least nine million inhabitants are found in Papua New Guinea. They speak 839 different languages, with 313 of those languages being endangered. In Vanuatu, the 300,000 inhabitants speak 108 different languages, more than half of which are endangered.

The active voice conversion of the given sentences would be:

  • - 704 living languages are in Indonesia, 424 in India, and 175 in the Philippines.
  • - Almost half of the languages spoken in these three countries are endangered.
  • - Those five countries alone speak more than one-third of the languages considered endangered.

Asia-Pacific faces severe language loss

South Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific are particularly vulnerable to future language loss due to the combination of the large numbers of already endangered languages and the large numbers of people displaced by environmental disasters. Additionally, a majority of these endangered languages are spoken in a small geographic area and have only a few hundred speakers left.

If speakers of those languages leave their small communities and scatter — for whatever reasons — it becomes less likely that they will pass on these languages to future generations.

Outside their small communities, these languages are likely to have little economic and cultural value.

Forced migration causes people to lose their community, so the preservation of languages through measures such as ensuring communities stay intact, providing a sustainable living environment, and offering opportunities for income generation, might not be applicable in this case.

Language loss has many reasons, and migration is only one part of the puzzle. However, in those parts of the world where we find many of the endangered languages, environmental disasters play a significant role in driving migration. Furthermore, this forced migration has the potential to accelerate the threat to languages.

This content is originally published under the Creative Commons license by 360info™. The Ground Report editorial team has made some changes to the original version.

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