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One of the serious downsides of the globalization process involves the endangerment and disappearance of “mother” languages—especially for indigenous peoples.
In fact, prepare to be shocked: every two weeks an entire language disappears. The last known speakers of that language pass on, and with the demise of their language some of the unique treasure of an entire culture dies, too. Think about that sobering statistic for a moment—every two weeks the cultural heritage, ancestral memory, traditional wisdom and novel ways of seeing the world that a language represents become extinct.
When whole languages disappear—especially the languages of indigenous tribal peoples—they take with them the matrix of entire cultures, wiping out the values, norms and ways of communicating those people have developed over thousands of years. When languages disappear, so does identity.
According to the United Nations:
At least 43% of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world. – www.un.org/en/events/motherlanguageday
In many ways, this silent crisis constitutes a mass extinction. Linguists agree that almost half of the world’s languages will likely not survive into the next generation—and that within two generations, most languages in the world will die out.
So who cares? Couldn’t this be seen as a positive? Some believe that reducing the number of languages—the “Tower of Babel” that currently exists with at least 6000 spoken languages on our planet—will enhance communication and bring us closer together as a species.
But just as human life depends on biological diversity, so too does humanity’s vast reservoir of inherited knowledge depend on linguistic diversity. Once we lose the knowledge embedded in the languages of indigenous peoples, we lose their wisdom, their insights, their unique ability to transmit what they know to the rest of us.
For example: the Earth’s tropical rainforests have become major contributors to the treatment of disease and relief of suffering. The Rainforest Trust says:
Nearly 90% of human diseases known to medical science can be treated with prescription drugs derived from nature. The benefits to humanity of nature-derived medicines are incalculable in terms of longevity, relief of suffering, and increase in the quality of life. – www.rainforesttrust.org
In many, many cases, researchers have depended on indigenous wisdom from Amazonian rainforest peoples to source, find and synthesize new prescription medications—drugs like Taxol for the treatment of cancer, lisinopril for the treatment of heart disease and high blood pressure, or the many antibiotics we use to stop infections. The discovery of lisinopril, one of the most-utilized drugs in the world for heart disease, originated from the venom of the jararaca, an Amazonian pit viper—and from the Tupi family of indigenous languages, whose native people understood that a bite from the jararaca instantly lowered blood pressure.
To preserve this kind of valuable knowledge, the Baha’i teachings offer humanity a very specific principle that bears directly on this important issue: the global adoption of a universal auxiliary language—while retaining each native tongue:
Baha’u’llah has proclaimed the adoption of a universal language. A language shall be agreed upon by which unity will be established in the world. Each person will require training in two languages: his native tongue and the universal auxiliary form of speech. This will facilitate intercommunication and dispel the misunderstandings which the barriers of language have occasioned in the world. All people worship the same God and are alike His servants. When they are able to communicate freely, they will associate in friendship and concord, entertain the greatest love and fellowship for each other, and in reality the Orient and Occident will embrace in unity and agreement. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 300.
Today, most of the world’s population speaks one of five dominant languages: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi and Arabic. Because of the political and military dominance of the cultures that initially spread these languages around the world, some scholars refer to that dynamic as “linguistic imperialism,” the forced or power-induced transfer of a dominant language to other people. To prevent that from happening, only one course of action seems reasonable:
A world language will either be invented or chosen from among the existing languages and will be taught in the schools of all the federated nations as an auxiliary to their mother tongue. – Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 203.
That’s one of the reasons the world now observes International Mother Language Day every February 21st—to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism across the world. Many organizations and foundations now focus on saving endangered indigenous languages, for good reason:
Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression—valuable resources for ensuring a better future—are also lost.
Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue. – www.un.org/en/events/motherlanguageday
The Baha’i principle of a universal auxiliary language recognizes the value of all mother tongues and attempts to preserve them, while at the same time allowing all people to communicate easily with one another in a second auxiliary language. It envisions a completely bilingual world, with every person speaking their own indigenous language and also speaking a universal one:
… the function of language is to portray the mysteries and secrets of human hearts. The heart is like a box, and language is the key. Only by using the key can we open the box and observe the gems it contains. Therefore, the question of an auxiliary international tongue has the utmost importance. Through this means international education and training become possible; the evidence and history of the past can be acquired. The spread of the known facts of the human world depends upon language. The explanation of divine teachings can only be through this medium. As long as diversity of tongues and lack of comprehension of other languages continue, these glorious aims cannot be realized. Therefore, the very first service to the world of man is to establish this auxiliary international means of communication. It will become the cause of the tranquillity of the human commonwealth. Through it sciences and arts will be spread among the nations, and it will prove to be the means of the progress and development of all races. We must endeavor with all our powers to establish this international auxiliary language throughout the world. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 60-61.
No matter what language you spoke as a child, you have a stake in the struggle to preserve the mother tongues of indigenous people—so please join in today as the world celebrates International Mother Language Day, and join with the world’s Baha’is in advocating for a universal auxiliary language that protects the mother tongues of the planet’s peoples.