There was an interesting piece that popped up on The Age last weekend about the state of the Toto language in India. Speakers of Toto, living in India’s isolated Himalayan foothills, have to face a future where the fate of their language is precarious. It’s a context that’s familiar to me — I work with speakers of another language who live in the shadow of the Himalayas, on the Nepal side (more about them later).

The Toto speakers may live with relatively minimal outside contact, due to a lack of infrastructure, but there’s still a sense that their language is at risk. As Ben Doherty reports:

“… there is a battle going on in Totopara, a quiet war being waged to retain a sense of community, of identity and of culture, against the forces of economy and the pull of conformity that grips so many of the world’s small cultures. Totopara’s is a fight to keep a language alive.”

Doherty does a great job of showing the increasing encroachment of other languages for educational and economic advancement, of the sensitive links between language, culture and identity and the grim future of catastrophic lost of linguistic diversity in the coming century. The strangest thing about the story for me was the need to set it in India. Doherty didn’t even need his passport to tell the same story, he could have just hopped on a plane to any number of isolated communities in Australia where exactly the same thing is happening.

Take, for example, Kayardild, spoken on Bentinck Island in north-west Queensland. There a fewer than eight speakers of the language left, and no one under the age of 60 can speak the language. In Australia there were once more than 500 native languages. The most detailed estimate is Claire Bowern’s, with 491 languages listed, but there were likely more that we never even found out about. Today there are fewer than 150 of those languages left, and of those only 10% are being passed on to children, and therefore likely to survive. Policies such as the Northern Territory’s limitation of native language and bilingual education not only limit the spread of traditional languages for the next generation but hamper children’s current educational development.

Perhaps it’s easier to observe the tragedy of stories like these when it’s not on your own doorstep. Only a couple of days after The Age published a piece about the lost of linguistic diversity in India, there was a piece about native language loss in The Philippines reported in The Hindu, a major Indian news service.

Compared to many Australian languages, and many other languages of the India area, Toto is relatively healthy. Although a thousand speakers doesn’t sound like a large community, population is not the only indicator of the vitality of a language. Attitude of the community is of primary importance, and most especially the attitude towards passing the language on to children. With 80% of children speaking Toto, according to the article, the language looks to be safe for at least the next generation. Now is the time for Toto speakers to pass their language on before it begins to attrite, and also to teach their children the importance of the language and culture so that they can continue to pass it on. For many of the languages of Australia and across the globe the link between generations is broken and it’s already too late.

Doherty mentions that only 600 of the 7000 languages of the world are expected to survive into the next century. There has always been a natural process of language loss, and language change, but it’s never been on this scale. This is really only an estimate, we can’t be sure of how many languages will be lost, partly because it’s a complicated and idiosyncratic process, and because we’re not even really sure how many languages there are. We only have the most basic knowledge about most of the languages of the world, even those that are about to be lost. We don’t even know about some languages — it’s more common than you think for linguists to “find” a new language or a new dialect of an existing language; there was no linguistic record of Lamjung Yolmo until I started working with its speakers 3½ years ago, and given the declining use it was likely that their dialect of Yolmo could have easily have slipped out of existence without even a basic word list as a record.

We used to optimistically believe that we would “only” lose about half the linguistic diversity on Earth — but with increasing globilisation and economic, educational and environmental pressures placed on speakers of minority languages (who are often also socially and economically marginalised) it has been acknowledged in the past few years that what we are witnessing is a watershed catastrophic lost of linguistic diversity.

But why is this important? Why can’t everyone just learn English/Hindi/Spanish and just get on with life? These are very easy questions to ask when you’ve grown up as a speaker of one of the world’s most dominant languages (disclaimer: I’m an English native speaker, and I once suffered the same indifference), but there are a few other factors at play here. First, as Doherty’s article illustrates, language is part of a complex dynamic that’s also closely associated with identity and culture. There’s generally a correlation between language maintenance and the health of a community, although of course there is so much variation between groups which makes it hard to generalise.