The world is losing one language every two weeks, linguistics experts warned on Tuesday, estimating that half of the 7,000 different languages spoken today will be lost by 2100.
“The loss of a single language is really a loss for all of us,” Susan Penfield, program director of the National Science Foundation, said during a talk at the Voice of America in Washington. “It is not just a loss for the speakers. It is something that we all have to think about, and I think take some responsibility for.”
Endangered languages range from Africa to America and Asia. The mobility of one group or another can contribute to the death of a language, and a younger generation’s refusal to learn a native language is one sign of danger.
“When a language dies, certain aspects of culture die with it. Some of these languages are very unique,” said Hayib Sosseh, a linguistics expert at Northern Virginia Community College.
Cambodia has a national policy to protect its indigenous languages, Tun Sa Im, a secretary of state for the Ministry of Education, told VOA Khmer ahead of the talk.
"Our policy clearly provides for their access to education, radio [programs] to promote their languages, and the use of their language for communication,” she said.
According to a 1998 census by the Ministry of Planning, there are 17 different groups of indigenous people in Cambodia. They belong to two different linguistic families: the Austronesian-speaking Jarai and the Mon-Khmer-speaking Brao, Kreung, Tampuan, Punong, Stieng, Kui and Poar.
Yun Mane, who is Phnong and works in Phnom Penh, said she always tries to speak her native language when she visits her home province of Mondolkiri.
“I am not the only person fearing the loss of our language,” she told VOA Khmer. “The majority of indigenous people and young people now living in Phnom Penh are also worried.”
Some indigenous students in Phnom Penh have created an association to safeguard their tradition and culture.
And since 2003 the Ministry of Education has developed written forms of these languages based on the Cambodian alphabet. The ministry hopes this will help indigenous people document their history and culture and have better access to national education.
Language experts recommend the recording of a language and the collection of other data to preserve a dying language. And training and teachers can play a crucial role in bringing a language back to life.