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Endangered Languages at SOAS, University of London

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Today there are about 7000 languages spoken worldwide and at least half of those will have fallen silent by the end of this century. In many areas of the world, speakers give up their traditional ways of life, move to cities and make sure their children speak the language that will allow them to have a better life. This is because of the dramatic effects of globalisation affecting our lives all over the world. We estimate that by the year 2100 half the number of languages spoken will have halved down to 3500.

Languages coming and going, changing and shifting is a normal thing and is part of the beauty of this living medium. Latin is long gone (kind of at least), the English of the medieval ages is a challenge for pupils to unlock and the Welsh are fighting hard to keep their language alive. But what is happening today is unprecedented. The speed at which we are losing the world’s languages has increased dramatically over the past few decades. Some compare it to the 5th mass extinction, when the dinosaurs went.

Now, wouldn’t it be better if we all had one language and wouldn’t that make our lives easier as we would not be lost in translation anymore? Isn’t the tower of babel metaphor telling us that it is a curse to have these many languages? Well, let’s make a choice: how about a Turkic language which expresses whether you have directly witnessed or experienced an event or if you only have heard about it. Or what about Rotokas which is made up of only 12 sounds? Or Chinese of course where the meaning of a word can change if it is spoken in a higher tone? Well maybe not then because if faced with giving up your own language for another one we often see how we are home in the unique languages we are able to speak. London has become home for many people speaking these languages, who left their homeland. They live a diasporic life adapting to English and trying to ensure in Saturday schools that their children still can connect to their heritage and elders by learning their elders’ language.

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Ask a multilingual about words they cannot translate and you will get a lot of beautiful examples like the Japanese word Komorebi: the sort of scattered light effect that happens when light shines through trees. Why would we want to give this up? Well, let’s let go of this romantic example and ask why does it have to be one or the other language? Aren’t multilingual speakers the key to being ready for the challenges to come in a globalised highly mobile and at the same time fragmented world? Being multilingual, being able to express oneself and think is different ways makes us highly agile in responding to the challenges we are facing. It is diversity that makes a system robust and in many places around the globe we can observe multilingual agility being a response to challenges in the environment.

At the same time, what makes this language loss even more dramatic is that many of these disappearing languages have never been described or recorded. This means that the richness of human linguistic diversity is disappearing without a trace. Our cultural heritage and knowledge is vanishing in front of our eyes. And this is happening even as millions of tourists visiting the British Museum to admire and learn about the treasures of our cultural heritage preserved there. How can we make sure we are not losing what we have today so that in the future our children and their children can learn about our linguistic heritage?

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SOAS, University of London is home to the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme and to the Endangered Languages Archive, founded in 2002 with a generous donation from the Arcadia Fund. We fund people around the world to document these disappearing languages and to bring the audio and video recordings and the translations and analysis back to London to preserve them in the Endangered Languages Archive. The school is creating a lasting record of our linguistic diversity and at the same time the school is training scholars and students in London in language documentation and revitalisation. We also carry the knowledge and expertise into the places where the languages are disappearing we also train in the areas where the disappearing languages are spoken like Ghana, Ethiopia and Cameroon or in Siberia and Yunnan.

We were able to support the only large documentation of Great Andamanese languages in the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. The Andamanese people are believed to be descendants of one of the oldest human cultures on Earth having lived on the island for the past 65,000 years. During the project the last speaker of the oldest Andamanese language Bo died and it is SOAS’ archive holding the last recordings of this speaker. Or the project on Taleshi, a language spoken in the North of Iran. The project was at stake when the researcher could not go back for political reasons. He found a speaker here in London who could become a major contributor in documenting his disappearing language while living in exile.

When Camden celebrates its 50st, SOAS celebrates its 100th. Visit SOAS learn what we do in the heart of Camden to promote democracy, innovation and free thinking and celebrate your own linguistic diversity in the borough.

Check out the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme here.

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