Marcelo Dascal
Endangered Languages

2. How many languages do we "need"?

Six thousand living languages in the world !

Some people may be surprised by the number of spoken languages I mentioned. "Six thousand languages!" -- they might wonder -- "isn't this too much? who needs so many languages? wouldn't life be easier for everybody if there were only a few languages in the world?".

These persons would surely be encouraged to learn that 5 languages are those of 50% of the world's population; another 100 languages are spoken by 45%; so that the remaining 5,900 languages are spoken by only 5%. If present trends persist, the dominance of the 'big languages' will increase, and further reduce the percentage of speakers of the vast majority of languages of the world.

But the question, "how many languages are needed?", as all important questions, does not allow for a simple answer. Any answer must begin by a disappointing "It depends". It depends on what needs and whose needs one is considering. Suppose, for example, one accepts that it would be better, say, for world communication, if there were only a few --- perhaps even only one -- language spoken throughout the world. Would that person also condone the elimination of his or her own mother tongue -- the language in which her first emotions, thoughts, and aspirations were expressed, the language that shaped his first understanding of the human and physical environment, the language that carries its traditions and culture - for the sake of improving world communications? I doubt it.

As soon as one realizes that languages are not only tools for communication, but have a variety of other functions -- cognitive, emotive, cultural, social, and political -- it becomes clear that much more than efficient communication is at stake when discussing how many languages the world "needs" and what should be our attitude towards endangered languages.

Before we address these questions, let us have a closer look at the diversity of languages and their rate of disappearance.

Chapter 3

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