The Importance of Languages and Dialects

Endangered language

Endangered language

Guest post by Georgina Cornforth

With an estimated 6,000 languages already being spoken around the world in 2017, it’s surprising that there are enough speakers of the tens of thousands of dialects which we often don’t even realise exist. Although it is believed that languages and dialects are becoming extinct at a rate of around 3-5 each year, new ones are slowly evolving such as ‘Textspeak’ or even ‘Emoji’. If ‘Emoji’ were to one day be officially recognised as a language, it would certainly facilitate communication between people from all over the world and break down language barriers, however simple that form of communication may be. Nevertheless, dialects are extremely specific to certain regions and villages, so therefore maintain a great deal of culture within them which a possibly universal language such as ‘Emoji’ simply could not.

What is a dialect?

A dialect, (‘un patois’ in French or ‘ لَهْجة ’ in Arabic) is a form of an official language specific to a region or social group of any country. The English language itself has over one hundred variants across the world, such as Yorkshire, Bermudian English or Maori English which can often be difficult to interpret by speakers of other English dialects. France is another European country which is known for its wide range of dialects, much due to its proximity to and borders with other countries. The Franco-Germanic dialect of Alsace (Alsatian) is spoken by 1.44% of people in France – that’s 548,000 speakers. It tends to be used by more of the older generation, due to the passing of Alsace and Lorraine between the powers of France and Germany until it was finally returned to France after World War II. Although it is still taught in various schools throughout North-Eastern France, it is becoming of lesser importance due to its complexity, especially for speakers who are not proficient in both French and German.

The diversity of Spain is often related to its numerous co-official languages and dialects which all contribute to the different cultures in the regions where they are spoken. Apart from the official language of Castilian, the co-official languages of Spain are Galician, Basque and Catalan and are spoken in the regions of Galicia, the Basque Country and Catalonia/Valencia/Balearic Islands. Dialects include Andalusian, Murcian and Extremaduran.

Are translators needed for certain dialects?

The use of the tens of thousands of dialects continues to have great importance in all societies as they are often a reflection of a country’s history, be that of a colonial past or of its developed culture. Many people in small, remote villages, such as in Peru, often only speak a regional dialect as their mother tongue and thus have difficulties in acquiring the official language of their country. This complicates communication, particularly between a government and its people, therefore even translators are needed even for languages such as ‘Taa’ which is spoken by less than 2,600 people in mainly Botswana and Namibia.

Most people who speak a dialect do however tend to speak a more common language to a fairly fluent level as well. Inhabitants of the Ivory Coast often speak Baoulé as their mother tongue, but can also speak French due to it being the official language of the country and thus used by the government and taught in schools.

Why are certain languages and dialects disappearing?

It is said that once a language stops being taught to children, it may become non-existent. However, it isn’t necessarily easy to pass on one’s heritage as children are more likely to wish to speak the language of their peers, so are not always interested in learning the native languages of their parents, although they may be able to understand it. A trend has also grown of regarding official languages as being of higher status than dialects of villages and is thus another reason as to the decline of dialects.

It is vital that we hold on to as many languages and dialects throughout the world as possible, particularly those which are only spoken by minority groups. Africa has been named as the continent with the highest number of languages, as over a third (2,000) of all of the languages of the world are found here. However, if these languages are not passed on to future generations, it is feared that half of all of its languages (1,000) may become extinct within the next fifty years. Along with every language which is lost, we also see a culture disappear (often one that may date back hundreds of years), so wherever possible we should try to recognise and save as many languages in our lifetime as we can.