When an insect only seven people have ever seen goes extinct in a place you need a government grant to get to, more than just environmentalists feel a part of our world has gone forever. Understandably so. But what about when a language once used by thousands is down to its last speaker, and the universe of relations and ideas that language conveys will not survive them? Who protests, who runs worldwide campaigns or passes legislation against hazardous, toxic notions like "official languages" and "world languages" that creep onto and kill ways of understanding what it means to be human? A group of fifty linguists meeting at the first-ever Endangered Languages Information and Infrastructure Workshop, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, realize the tragedy but aren't superheroes.
In the last 500 years, half of the world's languages have become extinct. What is new is the accelerated rate of language extinction today. Linguists predict that in the next 100 years nearly 90 percent of the world's 7,000 languages will become extinct, with a best case scenario at only 35 to 50 percent surviving (Krauss,1992). "When we lose, say, 50 percent of languages, we're losing 50 percent of human cognitive ability," says linguist Lyle Campbell. "Linguistics is a study of human cognition, what makes the mind tick, click, and work. It's our responsibility as linguists to do what we can." Unfortunately for Campbell and his colleagues, words difficult to pronounce just aren't as cute and cuddly as panda bears and Hollywood superstars have yet to milk endangered languages for their publicity value. Try asking a panda whether or not there is life after death. Unfortunately, while hundreds of groups protect species for biodiversity, none protect endangered languages for logodiversity.
The admirable work of these linguistics overlooks one major possibility based on a historical actuality: that as languages die, new ones can and are created not in their place, but in the space they leave behind. "A language is not just words and grammar; it is a web of history that binds all the people who once spoke the language, all the things they did together, all the knowledge they imparted to their descendants," says Anthony Aristar, professor of linguistics at Eastern Michigan University, in Science Daily. There is also such a thing as the languages of the future, beyond but also in between the lingua francas that are most likely to survive: English, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. The languages of the future, whatever they may look or sound like, will be made from those of the present, which is why the study of multilingualism is at least as important as current event that can literally speak to the future.