When Lily Gladstone accepted her historic Golden Globe award earlier this month, the “Killers of the Flower Moon” star didn’t just express her thanks. She introduced herself. She said her name. She said “I love you.” And she said it in Blackfeet. “One of the first things we’re taught is you say your name, you say where you’re from and you say hello to everyone, ‘Hello, my friends,'” she explained later. “So it was one of the more natural things I could do in the moment.” It was a greeting received around the globe, in a language spoken only by a few thousand people. There are roughly 7,000 languages in the world. And UNESCO has estimated that 3,000 of them — including Yiddish, Irish and Blackfoot — are endangered and could be lost by the end of the century. That’s one language every two weeks. Potentially gone.
Languages don’t just randomly go missing. They don’t disappear because the world is becoming a smaller place, or because a common tongue automatically a good thing. Their precarity or obliteration means something else, something we need to pay attention to. “People don’t lose their languages to globalization,” says Daniel Bögre Udell, the co-founder of the language preservation nonprofit Wikitongues. “Rather, economic exclusion, political oppression and violence, force people to abandon their languages. Globalization didn’t drive Blackfoot, known natively as Siksika, into decline. Rather until 1978, the federal government took indigenous children from their families and forced them into so-called residential schools where they were given English names and punished for speaking their languages.” He cites another, more personal example.
“I’m an Ashkenazi Jew,” he continues, “so one of my ancestral languages is Yiddish, which today is natively spoken by no more than 10% of our community. Globalization didn’t drive Yiddish into decline, the Holocaust did. And it goes on and on like that. In nearly every country, language loss is an intended consequence.”
“The situation is quite dramatic,” says Marcin Dadan, PhD, a visiting professor in the linguistics department of the University of Iowa. “The linguist Kenneth Hale from MIT said that losing a language is like dropping a bomb on a museum.” But he says there’s cause for optimism. “The current administration is actually doing a lot,” he says. “Biden’s administration had a grant that was awarded to around 200 tribes and through tribal organizations to help them preserve language.”
“Losing a language is like dropping a bomb on a museum.”
I first became beware aware of the significance of language loss studying Irish history, learning how a systematic repression of — and subsequent revival of — a people’s language can shape its history and identity. I thought about it again when I spent a few weeks in Switzerland this summer, and discovered that the nation has four official languages: French, German, Italian and Romansh, a language spoken by just 60,000 people and almost exclusively in one small region of the country.
In a world in which any skill that can’t be leveraged for the maximum benefit of capitalism is seen as a dubious enterprise, it can be difficult to make the case for languages that are not widely spoken. Yet their continued existence matters, for a variety of compelling reasons. “First of all, it’s just the right thing to do,” says Daniel Bögre Udell. “Virtually every endangered language is endangered because its community was systematically targeted by genocide, forced cultural assimilation, some kind of political marginalization. On a practical level, language diversity encodes the sum of human cultural, historical and ecological knowledge. As a species, we lose knowledge when we lose languages. For example, the way that languages change across geography actually can give us clues into prehistory. If migration took place, we can actually see that in the way that languages change across a certain geography even if that migration was never recorded.
He continues, “And in biodiverse regions, about 80% of the world’s ecologically sensitive territory is in indigenous hands. The languages of the people who live there tend to contain vocabulary that encodes knowledge of that ecosystem. In fact, when paired with land management language revitalization can improve conservation efforts.” He adds that “There’s some neuroscientific evidence that being multilingual is really, really good for your brain. And it’s good for one of them to be your cultural language, because that’s good for yourself a self esteem and emotional health.” He cites Switzerland as an example. “Switzerland attributes about 11% of its GDP to multilingual policies that support French, Italian, German and of course, Romansh,” he says, “whereas Great Britain has been recorded to lose out on an additional 3% of its GDP every year because of its relatively monolingual workforce.”
“I myself do not like to use the word ‘preservation’ because that hinges on the language being preserved like a pickle because in a jar.”
But as initiatives in Switzerland, the U.S. and around the world prove, the course toward endangerment can be reversed. “Language is the kind of the the purest expression of intangible heritage, that there is,” says Udell. “As the world becomes more globalized, we’re actually seeing more language revitalization, which far from promoting cultural isolation, encourages multilingualism. It’s about more languages, not fewer.”
Keeping language alive requires commitment and active participation, especially from younger members of a community. It means speaking the language and using it. “I myself do not like to use the word ‘preservation’ because that hinges on the language being preserved like a pickle because in a jar,” says Mizuki Miyashita Director of Linguistics Program at the University of Montana and former leader of its The Blackfoot Language Group. “It doesn’t resonate to a community’s needs, which is to revitalize the language, to have the language used all over as many more domains as possible.” But, she says, “Younger people have a passion to learn the language.”
Whether we speak the same language or not, when we give each other space to speak and be heard, we understand each other better. Reflecting on Lily Gladstone’s Golden Globes moment, Cynthia Hansen, a professor of linguistics at Grinnell College who specializes in endangered languages, observes, “Her speech was just a beautiful moment of intimacy. I think we lose sight when we say everyone should speak English, because that’s the way of the business world or whatever. In many ways, she was speaking to her mom and her family, saying, ‘I’m up here because of you, I love you.’ That’s something that is also important in terms of language. She wasn’t speaking to so that people didn’t understand her. She was speaking so that a very specific group knew how important this was. Something that’s lost in the media coverage is the intimacy of that moment, and also the platform that she used to draw of attention to the work of have language revitalization for her community.” She says, “We use language to tell our kids we love them to tell them our friends that were part of the same group. To reach out to a stranger and say, ‘You’re not alone.'”