Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Everla. Everla Wonders, “Why is Latin a dead language?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Everla!
How many languages do you speak? How many are spoken in your school? How about your town? Your country? How many languages do you think there are in the entire world?
Altogether, people around the world speak about 7,000 languages. Does that surprise you? There used to be many more! Today, about half the world’s spoken languages are endangered. Experts say that another language becomes extinct every two weeks.
Where have you heard the words “extinct” and “endangered” before? You may have used them in school. Usually, these words describe plants and animals that are in danger of dying out. But linguists also use them to describe dying languages.
How do languages die? They die when people stop using them. But most people don’t just stop speaking their native language. It’s more complex than that. More often, they’re either pressured or forced to do so. One example is when people move to a different country. They’re often pressured to speak the area’s dominant language instead of their own. This leads many immigrants to stop using their native language. They might not even teach it to their children. Slowly, the native language dies out.
In other cases, people are forced to stop speaking their language. For many years, the United States, Canada, and Australia forced children from Indigenous cultures to live in residential schools. At these schools, the children had to learn English. Adults punished the children when they spoke their native languages. This traumatized the children. That trauma still affects Indigenous peoples today, and many indigenous languages are extinct because of these actions.
Sometimes, languages shift or evolve instead of becoming extinct. Have you ever heard that Latin is a dead language? In a way, it is. No one today speaks Latin as their native language. But that doesn’t mean it’s extinct. People still use Latin in many ways. Scientists use it to name plants and animals. The language is also common in religions, especially Catholicism. In fact, Latin is the official language of Vatican City.
Latin isn’t extinct. But why isn’t it commonly spoken anymore? Latin was the language of the Roman Empire. It spread far and wide. Then, in 476 CE, the Roman Empire fell. Instead of going extinct, Latin evolved. In a way, the language is still alive today. It became the Romance languages—Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian.
Language is closely tied to culture. That means the death of a language hurts people’s ability to take part in cultural traditions. They might lose access to stories and knowledge that were passed down for many years. This is one reason why many people today are working to save dying languages.
How can languages be saved? Some young people learn the language of their ancestors as adults. Linguists travel the world to record the last native speakers of dying languages. Some native speakers even write dictionaries in their language. They do so in hopes that future generations will bring the language back to life. Many educational programs today also work to help preserve native languages and cultures. One example is the Family and Child Education (FACE) program.
How else can people save languages? Think about your native language—how can you help protect it? Do you use it every day? Read and write texts using it? There are plenty of things everyday people can do to help protect languages.
Standards: CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2, C3.D2.His.2