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Over the past century, 600 languages have disappeared – a rate of one every two months, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), and its forecasts suggest that by 2100 half of the world’s 6,000-plus languages will no longer be spoken. This trend is closely connected with a decline in the number of inhabitants – and therefore also the cultures – of small villages, along with educational policy in some parts of the world such as Canada, Australia and South Africa where the national language is also taught to small communities. This march towards homogeneity is eliminating a cultural fragmentation that until now has had a strongly characterising and identity-building effect.

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Globalisation has also played a part as waves of migrants moving mainly in search of work have aligned themselves to the national language of their new homelands in order to integrate as effectively as possible into the local working and cultural fabric.

The key to knowledge

It is not just languages that are being lost – within these carefully created systems of communication lies deep-seated knowledge; and it is knowledge that could be the key to our future existence. Take the Inuit language of northern Canada, which is known to have many different ways of saying “snow”. The inhabitants of the region have such a keen sense of different snow conditions that they are able to define its type and thus to understand whether it is safe – or not – to travel or hunt. Such specific and highly qualified knowledge of weather conditions is of great interest, for example, to scientists currently studying the effects of climate change and trying to predict and therefore prevent the melting of glaciers.

In the same way, the languages of tribal peoples in areas such as the Amazon reveal knowledge of zoology, botany, medicine and nature in general – all of which is at risk of being lost. Preserving this type of knowledge is thus of fundamental importance to the very survival of humanity.

Language represents a diversity that, in an ever-more globalised world, is essential for developing our thinking and mindset.

Creativity takes off

Yet while traditional languages are under threat, this is also a time of a great flourishing of communication. The emergence of the internet and the digital age have birthed an infinite number of new terms and an enormous increase in text-based forms. As Kenneth Goldsmith writes in his latest book, Uncreative Writing: “From typing e-mails to writing blog posts, text messaging, social networking status updates, and Twitter blasts: we’re deeper in words than we’ve ever been.” Both old and new words, that is. 

Mandarin Chinese is one of the world's most complex languages: its dictionary contains about 370,000 words, more than double the number of words in the Oxford English Dictionary and almost three times more than those in the French and Russian dictionaries. This myriad of words, however, is being supplemented by others, as the BBC explains in an article on the subject: these are the so-called “hot words” – slang terms that Chinese youngsters are creating and using online to communicate how they really feel about current trends and the political situation in their country.

There are more than 750 million people online in China and some of them are creating new words in order to evade censorship: for example the term “niubi” is used to indicate something cool, and “antizen” is a play on the words “ant” and “citizen” that conveys the impotence of the general public. These words come in useful for the many Chinese people who now communicate with people in different areas of the country that might not have the same degree of access to information or certain media.

Some words or expressions are automatically censored: for example, on June 4 every year – the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests – the figures “46” “64” or “8964” (all references to the date) and similar variants are banned from social media. The same fate also befell Taylor Swift's 1989, because the pop star’s album was thought to be a metaphor for the event (and her initials of TS could be used to refer to Tiananmen Square).

Very slowly, young Chinese people are increasingly trying to take part in public discussions by shifting these ideological, lexical, digital and historical boundaries, and are doing this by using their linguistic creativity while demonstrating “smilence” – which means masking their frustration with a silent smile, even though they know what’s going on.

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Flexible minds

It can’t be easy to invent new words when there are already so many in the dictionary. The mental process could be similar to that used by the so-called “hyperpolyglots” – people who are able to speak multiple languages but who, above all, have the ability to learn them with a certain ease. Writing in The New Yorker on the (solved) mystery of people who speak multiple languages, Judith Thurman describes how the promise of online language-learning programmes such as Pimsleur, Babbel, Rosetta Stone and Duolingo is that, “in the brain of every monolingual, there’s a dormant polyglot – a genie – who, with some brisk mental friction, can be woken up”.

These programmes deliver lessons on hundreds of languages at several difficulty levels, very often providing the opportunity to periodically connect with mother-tongue speakers to train the skills that have been learnt.

The British linguist Richard Hudson coined the term “hyperpolyglot” two decades ago, but the phenomenon itself is much older. Thurman points out that in the New Testament, Christ’s disciples were said to “speak in tongues”, preaching in the languages of “every nation under heaven”, while Pliny the Elder records that the Greco-Persian king Mithridates VI, who ruled 22 nations during the first century BC, was able to legislate in each of them in their own mother tongue.

For many of us, learning a new language seems a truly noteworthy achievement, but the same cannot be said of people around the world who live in veritable linguistic crossroads – for example in South Asia, Latin America, Central Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and Melanesia, as well as many other cultures such as Maltese or Shawi.

Paradoxically, notes Thurman, if people living in Chelsea, New York, spoke differently to those living in Soho, New York, for example, then even New Yorkers would be multilingual.

Language lovers

What really counts for language survival is that there are enough lovers of languages who not only will never stop learning them, but who will also never cease to pass them on: to their children, within schools, in books and via the internet.

The wonderful thing about languages – the real ones, the “meaty” ones, as Valeria Luiselli writes in her excellent and widely-discussed novel Lost Children Archive – lies in the differences that distinguish them, such as “the difficult position of the tip of the tongue in the Hispanic R, the rapid clicks of the palate used in all polysyllabic words in the Quechua and Kharif languages, the soft and downward curving bed that the tongue has to become in the aspirated Arabic H”.

While these are things that maybe only hyperpolyglots can master, the rest of us shouldn’t give up trying.

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