A couple of years ago, I worked on a campaign that fought to preserve dying native languages. There was one story of language loss that I’ve always found particularly interesting: The Euchee people, now living in Oklahoma, have only four remaining fluent speakers, and they are each over 70 years old. The situation is sad, to be sure, as the loss of indigenous languages is linked to the loss of cultural diversity and, it is thought, even biodiversity, since indigenous languages preserve important biological information about the regions in which they developed. When they are lost, so is that knowledge.
The Euchee case is not an anomaly: According to UNESCO, half of the world's more than 6,000 languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people—and half of those are spoken by fewer than 1,000. But practically speaking, I can’t help but wonder if, in the long term, it’s even possible to stop most of the world’s languages from being driven to extinction by English, Spanish, Chinese and the other dominant tongues of globalization.
According to a June 14th paper by researchers from the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the answer is, sometimes. The team modeled what happens when two languages compete for dominance in a given geographical region. What they found is that if the languages are sufficiently grammatically similar to one another and both are perceived as economically or socially valuable, then they can survive together in the same place for an indefinite amount of time. This makes sense when you look at a place like Europe: Because they live in relatively close proximity to one another, Europeans with different native languages have to interact frequently for both personal and economic reasons. Furthermore, many European languages like French, Spanish, and Italian are close descendants of one another, and as such have many words and grammatical patterns in common. If you know one, it's easy to learn another. In short, for a second language to survive, the payoff for speaking it must be high, and the barrier for learning it must be low.
This means that, in theory, less widely spoken languages can hold their own in the world, but the competition is fierce and extremely sensitive to certain conditions. Everything can be going smoothly for two languages, but then add or subtract a relatively small number of speakers or increase the economic advantage of speaking one language over the other, and everything falls apart. The study points to Scottish Gaelic and Welsh as two examples of languages that are predicted to go extinct. It also looks in closer detail at the competition between Spanish and Galician spoken in Northwestern Spain. The two languages are quite similar, so much so that a Galician speaker can have some limited conversation with a Spanish speaker. While the researchers did predict the eventual disappearance of Galician, they noted that because of the similarities of the two languages this extinction was not imminent.
So what about the Euchee language? One of the things that makes it so fascinating is that it appears to have developed independently of any other known language. Unfortunately, assuming the researchers are correct in finding that more closely related languages stand a better chance of coexisting, things don’t look so good. Of course, that’s not to say the Euchee language is doomed to extinction—it just means that in the dog-eat-dog world of linguistic competition, it’s not going to save itself.