As the world becomes more connected, language diversity is plummeting at an unprecedented rate.
Forty percent of the world's 7000 languages at risk of disappearing, according to estimates by the Endangered Languages Project. That trend is linked to economic globalization, as suggested by new work published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The impact of intertwining global economies on language diversity has been suggested for years by linguists like Lenore Grenoble at the University of Chicago. It's an argument that goes all the way back to the 1970s, when Herbert Schiller proposed the hotly debated theory of cultural imperialism, which suggested economically powerful nations hold immense cultural sway over the weaker countries they infiltrate. However, the connection has never been fully quantified until now, according to researchers.
"The dominating effect of a single socioeconomic factor, GDP per capita, on speaker growth rate suggests that economic growth and globalization […] are primary drivers of recent language speaker declines (mainly since the 1970s onwards), for instance, via associated political and educational developments and globalized socioeconomic dynamics," the researchers conclude in their report.
In the study, the researchers first established a set of endangered languages by accounting for several factors based on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which outlines symptoms of endangerment: small speaker population sizes, rapid declines in speaker numbers, and small geographic range.
After crunching the numbers using data culled from the Ethnologue, an authoritative source for basic information about the world's languages, the researchers concluded that 25 percent of the world's languages are in immediate danger of disappearing forever.
Threatened languages were numerous in economically developed regions, like northwestern North America, Europe, and Australia, and regions experiencing economic growth, according to the researchers. Though they tested for relationships between the danger of extinction and multiple environmental factors, including precipitation, temperature, and elevation, GDP per capita was the factor most tightly correlated with at-risk languages.
"Our findings highlight the contrasting status of threatened languages in hotspots within economically developed and developing regions," the researchers wrote. "Economically developed regions, such as North America and Australia, have already experienced many language extinctions, most probably due to the negative impact of economic, and associated political and educational, developments."
Of course, there are factors besides GDP that play into the disappearance of languages. According to UNESCO, "Languages are threatened by external forces such as military, economic, religious, cultural or educational subjugation, or by internal forces such as a community's negative attitude towards its own language." Even the internet has been linked to the extinction of little-spoken tongues by dint of a digital divide that locks out some groups and privileges others (and their language).
Even so, the study's findings could very well have serious implications that lie at the intersection of economic power and cultural hegemony. Regardless of however much the suggestion smells of dank and hazy dorm room musings, the study lends weight to the myriad theories that implicate the spread of economic power to cultural control. In particular, Joseph Nye's idea of soft power—defined as the ability of a powerful nation to "set the rules of the game" for a weaker one, culturally and economically speaking—comes to mind.
As economic power grows, the argument goes, so do opportunities to leverage that influence in order to bend cultural institutions to the will of the dominant group. Language, indeed, is a particularly salient domain of culture that appears to be intimately tied to economic power. The researchers' reference to "associated political and educational" developments is telling.
Unfortunately, it's unclear as to how exactly culture can be preserved in the face of economic domination in a particular region. Current efforts include cataloging languages on the internet and teaching them. The only thing that is for certain, the researchers concluded, is that preservation efforts should be focused on at-risk areas experiencing economic growth. The price of not doing so would be the loss of important cultural knowledge, traded for economic prosperity.