Huffpost WorldPost
K. David Harrison Headshot

Emerging Languages, Emergent Knowledge

Posted: Updated:

When ideas go extinct, we all grow poorer. Half the world's 7,000 languages now face extinction; a dramatic shift in human intellectual history. Our 21st century world -- replete with wondrous technologies -- rests upon the foundation of all humankind's prior wisdom and creativity.

This human knowledge base is durable, and during 99% of human history has been passed solely mouth to ear. Yet it is fragile, mostly unwritten, and vulnerable to forgetting.

Human survival required not just genetic diversity for physical vigor, but diversity of ideas for ingenuity. Knowledge expressed uniquely in each of 7,000 living tongues -- and resisting direct translation -- allowed our species to thrive on this planet.

But we are now at risk of entering an informational and evolutionary bottleneck, heading for a global memory wipe as languages vanish.

While the top of the economic pyramid may be dominated by a few players, the knowledge pyramid is inversely skewed, with just 0.2% of the world's population possessing a full 80% of our languages, and the vast knowledge they encode.

Humans spent millennia functioning in oral societies. Longevity of information was ensured by distributing it across multiple brains, and evolving complex social structures to ensure inter-generational transmission. In our knowledge-based economy, we now outsource most memory tasks to digital media, no longer memorizing stories, poems, or even phone numbers. But a hard drive is less durable than each successive medium that came before it: paper, papyrus, clay, stone, and human memory.

Some frame multilingualism as a hindrance to progress, and wish for one dominant world tongue. Should we choose English, with irregular verbs and illogical spelling? Swahili, with hundreds of thousands of forms for any given verb? Hawaiian, easier to pronounce with just eight consonants?

Skeptics may assert that Hawaiian did not put men on the moon, and lacks words like 'byte' and 'hard drive.' True, Hawaiians did not invent space travel, but they traversed the vast Pacific Ocean without compasses or maps. Memorizing star paths and sensing subtle wave interference patterns, they could plot a true course to distant unseen islands. Like any language, Hawaiian adapts quickly and has coined new words for technologies.

Emerging languages will prove to be a fertile source of new ideas. Language localization -- part of the push-back against globalization, is a growing trend. Whether in a Cherokee immersion kindergarten, or an Inuktitut web browser, localization fosters positive attitudes. Quickly internalized by speakers, such sentiments help save languages from extinction.

Nations that let multiple languages flourish will thrive in the innovation economy. Tech-savvy India, a nation particularly rich in languages with over 500, fosters multilingualism with tolerant policies, while producing students who are also fluent in Hindi and English.

In immigrant communities, such as Vietnamese in the USA, children who continue speaking their heritage language at home, while becoming bilingual at school, show improved academic performance. As the Journal of Youth and Adolescence notes: "...Recent studies with adolescents from several different immigrant groups have found a positive relationship between ethnic language proficiency and future educational and occupational aspirations."

From an indigenous perspective, Alaskan Yup'ik writer Harold Napoleon concurs: "Many villages have expressed interest in reviving...Native language use in their schools, because it has become evident that practicing one's cultural heritage and speaking one's heritage language promotes self-esteem in young people."

New information technologies are cleverly leveraged by linguistic survivors. Social networking sites showcase Anishinaabemowin, a Native American language spoken in Michigan; chat rooms revitalize Cherokee; children in Nunavut, Canada's Arctic north, navigate the Web in Inuktitut, the language of their hunter-gatherer grandparents.

It may seem wildly impractical, from a business standpoint, to translate 350,000 Microsoft Windows terms into Inuktitut, a language having < 40,000 speakers, written in a unique syllabary. But Microsoft's Local Languages Program -- which provides a Windows interface for nearly 100 emerging languages, including Maori, Welsh, and Tamil -- seeds future innovation. The real payoff to acting locally is thus intellectual, yielding a foment of ideas. No culture has a monopoly on genius, and we never know where the next great idea will emerge.

Collectively, these grassroots and corporate efforts at language revitalization converge on a global trend. I predict it will prove to be one of the most intriguing social dynamics in coming decades. People are rejecting a false choice of globalization - that they must choose to give up local tongues to monolingually speak a global one. Access to heritage languages strengthens identity, belonging, and access to traditional wisdom. We are all enriched.

Linguist Joshua Fishman, who championed Yiddish, said it best: "The entire world needs a diversity of ethnolinguistic entities...for fostering greater esthetic, intellectual and emotional capacities for humanity as a whole, indeed, for arriving at a higher state of human functioning."

As we celebrate UNESCO's International Mother Language Day, on February 21, 2011, we should treasure humanity's astonishing linguistic diversity, and work for its survival and expansion.