Is It Worth It To Preserve Dying Languages?

This is an under-explored question.

Preserving near extinct languages has broad support for the main reason that if a language dies, presumably some part of the associated culture dies too.

I don’t doubt that some unique culture exists in language, but what, exactly? And is it worth preserving even when considering the costs?

First, there are the opportunity costs of people encouraged or force to learn a language that’s just not that practically relevant. For all the time students in Ireland spend studying Gaelic it’s time not spent studying English, the language of the world. For all the time people in Mumbai spend having to learn that city’s new official language — Marathi — it’s not not spent studying Hindi or English. In America, the 22 children in on this Wyoming Indian reservation are being taught exclusively in Arapaho so as to preserve the language of their elders. The cultural interests of the adults come at the cost of competitiveness of their children.

Then there are the real costs of preserving a minority language in a society. The EU spends millions translating official documents and sessions all to pay due respect to cultural diversity. Canada spends an astromnomical amount translating everything into French all in the name of preserving Quebec culture.

Bottom Line: I question the assumption that preserving a near-extinct language is worth it. At the least, we need more discussion of what exactly is being saved and weigh those benefits against the costs.

22 comments on “Is It Worth It To Preserve Dying Languages?
  • Remembering Bill Murray in “Lost In Translation” and the face value of that wonderful film, I have to say Ben that we may be losing nuances which may only be communicated through these “dying” languages.

    I often wonder about the esoteric nature of language and the inherent need to express ones inner most emotions and feelings. “What if the words don’t exist to express exactly how I feel?” Now, with this very poignant post of yours, I begin to wonder, “What if the words existed but now are lost through ages and generations?”

  • Ben —

    interesting post. however, there seems to be a subtle subject shift right in the middle of it, when you mention Europe and Quebec.

    the French language is alive and well, it’s not dying, and it’s gorgeous. and it’s part of their culture, which I find unique.

    I might say that yes, a language spoken by 22 people is maybe too ‘expensive’ to mantain. I might also say, who am I to judge? but yes, I _do_ find that 22 people is too small a community to justify the costs for those children.

    But Europe? Quebec?
    Europe spends millions translating official documents, and I’m glad that it does.
    Diversity is a value that doesn’t come cheap, and it.. cannot be bought.


  • hi ben!
    I’m a spanish philology major and I really value the study of dying languages because it’s not only a way of preserving culture, it’s the way in which we get to know our history. The way in which I now can appreciate my native language(spanish btw)is way different because of my knowledge of latin and greek. There are lots of things, in my opinion, that we get to learn not because of their monetary value, is because they make us grow internally. We don’t read The Odyssey and The Iliad because someone will pay us for every adventure Ulises gets into. We do it because it makes us more complete human beings, with knowledge not only in sciences but in humanities. But that’s just my opinion.

    Great blog! btw, I’m an avid reader but not much of a poster.

  • Also, I think that in the case of kids being taught only their native language, the main issue is balance. You need to learn the language of your elders and also english or other foreign language in order to form kids that can be competitive in our current global world. A young child can perfectly manage to lear various languages at the same time.

  • It’s one thing to leave an avenue open (say, a separate language department in Universities) for those interested to do research or simply pursue the language, but it’s absolutely vicious if it is imposed upon an uninterested society, either by law or by force.

    Marathi literature is rich and has definite heritage. It has sufficient followers as well. But when some upstart political party tries to get mileage out of a violent agitation to force shopkeepers to switch their signboards from English to Marathi in a metro city like Mumbai, then its not love for language or that of its culture and heritage that stands out. It’s rowdy symbolism that masks itself as substance a la Talibanese -with a view to garner some quick reputation and perhaps, some votes too.

  • Likewise, art museums. Is it really worth spending all that money on preservation and curation when the people who go to look at paintings painted hundreds of years ago by dead people could be brushing up on their networking skills to gain that competitive edge, or even putting in useful hours at the gym? How much money is spent on maintaining those ornate buildings? And surely the security in a place like that isn’t cheap. Think of how many software development labs you could squeeze into an area the size of the MoMA or the Louvre. No one ever launched a dynamite IPO by meditating on a Matisse.

    But seriously, Ben, anyone who has done literary translation knows that, among other things, languages (dead or living) are stockpiles of sensory perceptions and ways of thinking that are simply not available in other languages; the process of translation involves many difficult trade-offs and compromises in the attempt to port the human truths from one language to another. Allowing a language to die is like deleting a database that took tens of thousands of years to code, or trying to figure out which part of human DNA is merely “junk” and purging it from the genome. Just because the truths accumulated in a particular database don’t seem useful in this week’s environment doesn’t mean they’re not useful over the long haul of human cultural evolution.

  • Marathi is not a dying language, so the reference to Marathi is somewhat incorrect. There are a number of Indian languages that have died though, the most notable one being Sanskrit which very few in India know and understand now.
    No amount of revival will work because of the network effects (or lack thereof), it would be hard to find another person to converse in Sanskrit with.

    With regards to an individual’s decision, the following factors are to be considered
    – Whether he can get by without knowing the language. I have stayed in Bangalore for 13 years without learning Kannada. It is an impediment at times, but I have never faced a situation where I could not get my job done because the other person did not understand any other language
    – The richness of the literature in that language. There are some absolute gems in Marathi literature, especially “Shyamchi Aai (Shyams mother)”, IMO it is worth learning Marathi for the privilege of reading this one book

  • @ Krishnan:

    While I agree that the reference to Marathi in the same argument as Arapaho is inappropriate comparison, I think the reason why you could get by without Kannada in Bangalore is because it is a cosmopolitan city where much business can be conducted in Tamil (or English or Hindi even) πŸ™‚ Long term residents however do absorb and learn the language which says something about those who do not or will not.

    @ Ben:

    Political issues aside, Marathi is the 4th largest spoken language in India and the 15th or 16th in the world. It has a rich literature and cultural heritage and it shares a script with Hindi and Sanskrit, except for some specific sounds and symbols (these are WYSIWYG languages where consonants are organised according to their origin in the gullet/ vocal box). It is definitely not on par with Arapaho! It is not my mother tongue but I grew up speaking it because of my neighbourhood being Marathi speaking. (Just for completion, I speak Hindi, Bengali, smattering of Punjabi, French and German too – many of them share common elements with other languages making life fairly easy for me in many parts of the world).

    There are two parts to your argument.

    Is it worth it? Perhaps the best judge are those whose language it is. Does it all have to be utilitarian, is my question back to you. Why should those who have no stake in the language get to have a say anyway?

    Should it be forced? Well it is like this – yes, it is important that a free flow of capital and human capital be allowed to grease the wheels of trade but have you tried doing business in France and Germany and Austria? They are fluent in English but they prefer not to use it as their main language of commerce. Language may be one of the last – and a sacree vache to boot – non-technical barrier to trade.

    It would be ideal if we all spoke the same language but alas, we don’t and just like art and musical heritage and books, languages deserve their champions too.

    Mark Abley’s ‘Spoken Here’ is a fascinating read about threatened languages if you have not already read it. A review here:

  • Oh, and it is NOT an under-explored question πŸ™‚ Not by a mile. If you are interested, let me know and I will direct you to a body of material that may be of interest.

  • My nieces (age 7 and 5) go to an all Gaelic speaking primary school. My brother (their father) is Irish but does not speak Gealic and their mother is English. They speak English 95% of the time they are not at school so are effectively bi-lingual. Their school work does not seem to have suffered and their grasp of english grammar is superior to any other young children I know. I was originally sceptical of their attending the school, but Ive been pleasantly surprised.

  • I’m sure with sophisticated computer models we could create human like languages for less than it costs to preserve “natural” human languages.

  • Thanks for the insightful comments.

    @ Steve Silberman — You make a very good point about the long term cultural reasons to preserve a language. But I wonder whether this can be done without hindering the competitiveness of the youth upon whom the minority language is forced? Surely you must agree that the 22 children in Wyoming who will go through all primary education in Arapaho (and speak Arapaho at home) are being put at a serious disadvantage. I think this is unfair to them.

    @ Mel — That’s good to hear, and the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are amply documented…

    @ Ris — I’m trying to become fluent in Spanish. I’m conversational now.

  • Some of my Celtic ancestors come from an area where the native language is now dying. I’d love to learn that language — one of its quirks is that it has no word for “no.” However, time and the fact that I’m in the United States prevent me from delving too deeply into this issue.

  • Hey Ben,

    Great post — I was struck with some of the same questions after watching a special on the Discovery Channel about the great personal and financial lengths that American Indian tribes are going to in order to preserve their languages among groups of two dozen or less.

    I think that, after a certain tipping point, preserving a language already dead becomes practically impossible.

    That being said, Latin, as an example, has proven its continued value in that it’s a key to all the romance languages and can help illuminate our shared cultural history.

    As an only tangentially related aside, I just read this article, which just stunned me:

    Perhaps there we can all agree that super-localized languages and dialects, taught by themselves, can be downright dangerous.

  • Hi Ben,

    my native language is French and I have to say it’s strange for me to see French named in a post about dying languages… last time I checked French was spoken by roughly 300 million people over the world, on the five continents.
    Last time I checked France was the country with the higher number of Nobel prices in literature, and the last award was in… 2008!
    Not so bad for a dying language πŸ˜‰

    About your opportunity cost calculus, just remember that Quebec would just become independent if their right to speak their own language wasn’t respected, just as Europe wouldn’t exist as a political body if any country felt someone was trying to impose some foreign languages.

    For Canada and Europe, translation and respect are nothing less than a matter of survival.

  • Ben:

    Thought-provoking conversation.

    I have to say I am totally biased in this one because I am married to a Navajo man and have had extensive conversations about this with him and my Mother-in-law.

    Language in Navajo culture is the foundation for all traditional prayers and songs. My Mother-in-law told me that when she was a little girl, her grandpa told her to teach her language to all of her grandchildren, for this was going to be their protection. Understanding his own language (and English btw) brings a tremendous amount of peace to my husband because with each word he speaks and song he sings he reinforces and celebrates who he is. There is a spirit and an energy in language which is extremely powerful.

    When kids from one generation to the next in Native communities do not learn their own language, it usually cuts them off from understanding their grandparents, who are their greatest teachers about traditional ways and their own culture.

    I imagine the Arapahos feel deep passion for keeping their language alive and are doing what they feel is best for their current situation. I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with learning English as well, but I do imagine the tremendous, heartbreaking future of a people without their language and songs, which often contain immeasurable comfort, teaching and healing.

    It is kind of like free-clearing tropical rainforest because you haven’t figured out what all the plants are for and it is more efficient to plant marketable commodities, or to raise cattle. Once the plants are gone, who knows what they could have cured.

    I know you like to travel a lot, so I suggest spending some time on reservations to look at the situation more closely. If you ever want to go on the Navajo res, just let me know and I will hook you up with some really wise people who have taught me a lot about the multi-faceted power of language.

    I don’t want to simplify a complex social problem, but at the same time cannot tell you how much joy I feel when my son speaks to his grandma in Navajo.

    All the best,


  • I’m 20 and Irish. To say that time spent studying Irish is time not spent studying English is, in my eyes, a foolish thing to say. Should our goal be to study as much English as possible? No. Hence, why we study other subjects. Literacy is Ireland is very good relative to other English speaking countries. My peers and I both, in general, have a very high standard when it comes to English. Irish, or Gaelic is a dying language, and to be quite honest, serves little purpose other than to maintain part of our culture. There are small areas of Ireland where Irish is the first language and they’re English is quite fine too.

    I write this as there seems to be an implication that our standard of English isn’t as good due to the fact we study Irish in school. Whether intended or not, this is not the case.

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