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You are here: Home Education Languages Who wants to lose their mother tongue?
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06/03/2011Who wants to lose their mother tongue?

Who wants to lose their mother tongue? A large proportion of the world's 6,000 languages are teetering on the edge of extinction. Even optimistic linguists expect half of these languages to disappear within 100 years. Pessimists say nine out of ten languages are faced with extinction.

We're talking about languages spoken by small groups of people. In some cases just a few thousand, or even as few as 15 people, according to linguist Pieter Muysken from the University of Nijmegen. He is doing research in Bolivia, where there are 34 languages still left. But he expects most of them will disappear in the near future. The languages are not being passed on to the next generation. But, you might ask yourself, if a language is spoken by so few people anyway, is that really such a tragedy?

Higher powers

People regard their language as part of their identity. Mr Muysken:

"Most people think of the idea that their language could disappear as a disaster. If they don't succeed in keeping their language alive, they experience it as a serious loss to have to give it up. A loss, a disaster. Or even a punishment by higher powers."

Mr Muysken quotes a Bolivian man talking about his language, Uru: "Losing our language is a punishment that is accompanied by the disappearance of magical help and the gift of prophecy." He thought if his people could no longer speak Uru, they would lose their magical powers.

Not fade away

Your mother tongue represents your tradition and your culture. Even if you speak a second language fluently, your mother tongue is still the language you express yourself best in. A woman from Peru told Muysken she was glad her child could go to a Spanish school, but that it meant she could no longer talk to her grandmother in her own language, Quechua.

There are also examples of languages which almost disappeared but instead made a dramatic comeback. In the 19th century, many people thought Basque would fade away within a few generations. But when the Basque country became heavily industrialised, the Basque language and identity experienced an enormous expansion. These days no one can dismiss Basque. The language has been saved, says Mr Muysken, thanks to economic growth and the strength of the region.


New languages are also coming in to existence. A number of new languages sprang up in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the so-called creoles. They developed when slaves and later contract workers were transported from one part of the world to another. In the places where they were sent to work, the West Indies for example, they began to speak new languages. In the case of the Dutch Antilles, Mr Muysken points out, Papiamento definitely did not exist before 1600 but is now an important language in the region.

"The relationship between the appearance of new languages and the disappearance of languages is lopsided. Many more languages are disappearing than are coming into existence."

Raised eyebrows

So is this all because of globalisation and the dominance of English? Not according to Pieter Muysken. English may be gaining ground, but it's doing so as a second language. And, as a reaction to this, he has noticed a number of languages developing greater resistance. One of these is Dutch. People are afraid of creeping Anglicisation and as a result, fighting it receives a great deal of support from many states.

This is a fairly recent development. In the 1960s, Mr Muysken notes, a Dutch linguist could say he expected Dutch to die out within a few generations without even causing raised eyebrows. That would be unthinkable these days. Nowadays everyone in the Netherlands regards the Dutch language as far too important for that.

International Mother Language Day

The celebration of International Mother Language Day started in 2000. It is an annual event held by UNESCO on 21 February. UNESCO believes that if people are able to keep their mother tongue alive, it will prevent cultural traditions from being lost.

International Mother Language Day has its origin in the 1952 protests in Bangladesh, which was formerly part of Pakistan. A number of students were killed during demonstrations for the Bengali language to be recognised as an official language of Pakistan.

RNW/ Heleen Sittig


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