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, we have access to state-of-the-art technology that allows us to travel effortlessly around the world—both virtually, through the use of social media, and literally, on airplanes. It seems reasonable to assume that the proliferation of technology and cross-cultural interaction might encourage language education. However, this is not the case.
The most common argument used to justify the lack of interest in the pursuit of language is the notion that learning a foreign language isn’t useful, or isn’t worth the time, because everybody speaks English, so why bother? Whether they're studying abroad or attempting to speak the language of their origins with an older-generation family member, young people are apprehensive about speaking a foreign language for many reasons—lack of full fluency, the social stigma of not “fitting in,” or being labeled “foreign.”
This, to me, is a sad reality, and one that lacks a clear explanation. The extinction of languages occurs for a multitude of reasons, and is most often a result of inevitable cultural consequences—colonization or suppression of one culture over another, particularly with indigenous languages. It is difficult to understand why there isn’t a greater effort to learn and preserve different 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 languages, the importance of them remains the same. Languages are more than just communicative tools. They may allow you to successfully order a meal at a Parisian café, but they serve an even greater purpose by enriching our lives with the history and cultural identity they represent. This ultimately encourages 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.”