The Clock is Ticking: Disappearing Cultures & Languages in the 21st Century

Above: In a remote region of the Brazilian rainforest, one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes points bows and arrows at an over-flying airplane. Tribes such as these are in danger of becoming extinct unless their land is protected from logging and disease. Photo by Gleison Miranda, Funai. (Read full article here)

Of approximately 6,000 languages currently spoken on Earth, many are not yet recorded, and less than half are being taught by elders to children of the next generation. Every two weeks or so an elder dies, and with them another language vanishes from the face of the planet. In Africa, 80% of the continent’s 2,000 languages are still unnamed, unwritten, and disappearing faster than they can be traced. At this rate, over half of the world’s languages may disappear within the 21st Century, taking along with them an immeasurable “wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain” (National Geographic: Enduring Voices).

Above: National Geographic’s map of endangered languages. Click to enlarge.

This loss of languages has tremendous implications for our future as the human race; the speakers of these unique modes of communication carry with them a different way of being, seeing and processing life in this world that we can all learn from. As modern culture becomes further alienated from the natural world, we must work even harder to respect and learn from these cultures who believe “the earth itself can only exist because it is being breathed into being by human consciousness” (Wade Davis, anthropologist and ethnobotanist). If we are not to destroy our natural world, we must try to better understand our impact upon it. If these marginalized cultures become extinct, we will lose a tremendously valuable record of humanity’s evolution and evidence of all that the human mind is capable of:

A language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules; A language is a flash of the human spirit, it is a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an eco-system of spiritual possibilities.
– Wade Davis

Watch Davis’ excellent lecture on this subject below:

Learn more at the National Geographic: Enduring Voices campaign website.

Read a great NY Times article on recording endangered languages here.