The world is home to an extraordinary level of linguistic diversity, with roughly 7,000 languages currently spoken and signed. Yet this diversity is highly unstable and is being rapidly eroded through a series of complex and interrelated processes that result in or lead to language loss. The combination of monolingualism and networks of global trade languages that are increasingly technologized have led to over half of the world’s population speaking one of only 13 languages. Such linguistic homogenization leaves in its wake a linguistic landscape that is increasingly endangered. A wide range of factors contribute to language loss and attrition. While some—such as natural disasters—are unique to particular language communities and specific geographical regions, many have similar origins and are common across endangered language communities around the globe. The harmful legacy of colonization and the enduring impact of disenfranchising policies relating to Indigenous and minority languages are at the heart of language attrition from New Zealand to Hawai’i, and from Canada to Nepal. Language loss does not occur in isolation, nor is it inevitable or in any way “natural.” The process also has wide-ranging social and economic repercussions for the language communities in question. Language is so heavily intertwined with cultural knowledge and political identity that speech forms often serve as meaningful indicators of a community’s vitality and social well-being. More than ever before, there are vigorous and collaborative efforts underway to reverse the trend of language loss and to reclaim and revitalize endangered languages. Such approaches vary significantly, from making use of digital technologies in order to engage individual and younger learners to community-oriented language nests and immersion programs. Drawing on diverse techniques and communities, the question of measuring the success of language revitalization programs has driven research forward in the areas of statistical assessments of linguistic diversity, endangerment, and vulnerability. Current efforts are re-evaluating the established triad of documentation-conservation-revitalization in favor of more unified, holistic, and community-led approaches.
Aidan Pine and Mark Turin
Elizabeth Lanza and Hirut Woldemariam
The linguistic landscape (henceforth LL) has proven to be a fruitful approach for investigating various societal dimensions of written language use in the public sphere. First introduced in the context of bilingual Canada as a gauge for measuring ethnolinguistic vitality, in the 21st century it is the focus of a thriving field of inquiry with its own conference series, an increasing number of publications, and an international journal dedicated exclusively to investigating language and other semiotic resources used in the public arena. The scholarship in this domain has centered on European and North American geographical sites; however, an increasingly voluminous share of studies addresses the LL of sites across the world through both books and articles. African contributions have added an important dimension to this knowledge base as southern multilingualisms bring into question the very concept of language in that speakers and writers draw on their rich linguistic repertoires, avoiding any compartmentalization or separation of what is traditionally conceived of as languages. The LL of Ethiopia has contributed to this growing base of empirical studies in the exploration of language policy issues, identity constructions, language contact, and the sociolinguistics of globalization. A new language policy of ethnic federalism was introduced to the country in the 1990s following a civil war and through a new constitution. This policy was set to recognize the various ethnolinguistic groups in the country and the official use of ethnic/regional languages to satisfy local political and educational needs. Through this, languages previously unwritten required a script in order for speakers to communicate in them in written texts. And many regions have chosen the Latin script above the Ethiopic script. Nonetheless, some languages remain invisible in the public sphere. These events create an exciting laboratory for studying the LL. Given the change of language policy since the late 20th century and the fast-growing economy of Ethiopia (one of the poorest countries on the continent) the manifest and increasingly visible display of languages in the LL provides an excellent lens for studying various sociolinguistic phenomena.
As elsewhere in the world, languages in Africa are endangered. The estimates for language loss on a world scale likely hold for Africa as well. Although the particular group of factors at work in Africa may be unique, they come from a well-established inventory familiar elsewhere. The forces reducing African language diversity come from the combination of a set of macro socioeconomic factors and historical events, such as colonization and globalization, coupled with local factors such as military conquest and misguided government policies. Simple demographic factors, such as number of speakers, are also important: the less widely spoken languages are more severely threatened than are those spoken more widely. The shift from African languages is to both European languages and the more widely spoken languages on the continent. Shifts also occur to localized or appropriated versions of the two. Climatic factors, most notably global warming, have played and will continue to play a role as well; the correlation between biological and linguistic diversity has often been remarked. For example, with the growth of plantation economies and the destruction of rain forests, there is a concomitant reduction in linguistic diversity.