The threat of extinction of minority languages

Most minority languages in the world are currently in rapid decline and face a serious threat of extinction. Nettle and Romaine estimate that up to 90% of the world’s languages are now considered endangered. Crace argues that

There are about 6,000 languages in the world yet 55 per cent of the population speaks just 15 of them. Economic imperialism has gone hand in hand with linguistic imperialism as people abandon their mother tongues in favour of the globally dominant English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian.

Krauss further predicts from the present trends that of the 6000 languages spoken today, between 20% and 50% will ‘die’ by the end of the twenty-first century.

On the African landscape, the drive towards national unity, social integration and construction of a national identity in most African countries has led to linguistic assimilation, linguistic loss and discrimination against linguistic minorities. Dorian vividly contends that

It is the concept of the nation-state coupled with its official standard language … that has in modern times posed the keenest threat to both the identities and the languages of small [minority] communities.

Bamgbose convincingly argues that the rationales for this approach are the notions that multilingualism inhibits national integration, and national integration necessarily involves the emergence of a nation state with only one national language. Linguistic diversity, linguistic minorities and minority languages have been viewed as problems. Minority language speakers are constructed as linguistic oddities, deficient, suffering from lack of knowledge of the dominant language and backward rather than owners of a positive resource, another language, or multilingual skills.

The nation state argument is not sustainable because it overlooks two salient points. Firstly, linguistic diversity per se is not a political problem. Rather, ignoring linguistic diversity is the problem. Secondly, national unity does not imply cultural or linguistic uniformity. Instead, nation states can be more representative and achieve stronger and sustainable unity if they guarantee the right of minority communities and their individual members to distinct language and cultural practices, and do not withhold resources or power from such communities.

The antagonism towards minority languages in most bilingual or multilingual African countries has led to linguistic assimilation and loss. May argues that

a ‘majority’ language – that is, a language with greater political power, privilege and social prestige – comes to replace the range and functions of a ‘minority’ language. The inevitable result of this process is that speakers of the minority language ‘shift’ over time to speaking the majority language. The process of language shift described here usually involves three broad stages. The first stage sees increasing pressure on minority language speakers to speak the majority language, particularly in formal language domains. This stage is often precipitated and facilitated by the introduction of education in the majority language. It leads to the eventual decrease in the functions of the minority language, with the public or official functions of that language being the first to be replaced by the majority language. The second stage sees a period of bilingualism, in which both languages continue to be spoken concurrently. However, this stage is usually characterised by a decreasing number of minority language speakers, especially among the younger generation, along with a decrease in the fluency of speakers as the minority language is spoken less, and employed in fewer and fewer language domains. The third and final stage – which may occur over the course of two or three generations, and sometimes less – sees the replacement of the minority language with the majority language. The minority language may be ‘remembered’ by a residual group of language speakers, but it is no longer spoken as a wider language of communication.