The origins of languages are scarcely known, and they vary from country to country. What is known is that languages are increasingly at risk of being endangered. According to the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, a language dies roughly every four months.
In an era of multiculturalism and budding diversity, the need for preserving different languages is apparent. There exist approximately 7,000 spoken languages worldwide—a remarkable figure, to say the least. Unfortunately, this number is slowly dwindling, along with the incentive to learn new languages. College students are interestingly one of the groups causing this trend.
According to a conducted survey cited in an Atlantic article, a mere 7% of college students in the United States are enrolled in a language course. Between 2009 and 2013, enrollment fell by approximately 111,000 placements. Perhaps even more shockingly, according to George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, less than 1% of American adults are considered “proficient” in a foreign language.
In this day and age, this seems like a surprising statistic given how interconnected the world is economically, politically, and—now more than ever—digitally. Today, our access to state-of-the-art technology allows us to travel effortlessly around the world, be it social media or various modes of transportation. It seems reasonable to assume that the proliferation of technology and cross-cultural interaction might encourage language education. However, this is not the case.
A lack of interest in pursuing languages is often attributed to the mentality that it isn’t useful or isn’t worth the time. It's easy to say most people speak English, so why bother? Whether studying abroad or attempting a conversation in their ancestral language with a family member, young people are apprehensive about speaking foreign languages for many reasons—a lack of fluency, a fear of being different, a general lack of interest.
This, to me, is a sad reality. Language deserves to be embraced, celebrated and protected. The extinction of languages occurs for a multitude of reasons, and is most often a result of inevitable cultural consequences, like the suppression of one culture over another. It is difficult to understand why there isn’t a greater effort to learn and preserve various languages because they are such an important part of our civilization.
Incentivizing foreign language learning is a personal initiative. While some are more inclined than others to pursue them, their importance remains the same. Language is more than just communicative tool. It might allow you to successfully order a meal at a Parisian café, but it serves an even greater purpose by enriching our lives with the history and cultural identity it represents. This ultimately instills a collective empathy and understanding between different cultures. As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”