One language dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will likely disappear, as communities abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin,or Spanish. What is lost when a language goes silent?
A One morning in early fall Andrei Mongush and his parents began preparations for supper, selecting a black-faced, fat-tailed sheep from their flock and rolling it onto its back on a tarp outside their livestock paddock. The Mongush family’s home is on the Siberian taiga, at the edge of the endless steppes, just over the horizon from Kyzyl, the capital of the Republic of Tuva, in the Russian Federation. They live near the geographic center of Asia, but linguistically and personally, the family inhabits a borderland, the frontier between progress and tradition. Tuvans are historically nomadic herders, moving their aal—an encampment of yurts—and their sheep and cows and reindeer from pasture to pasture as the seasons progress. The elder Mongushes, who have returned to their rural aal after working in the city, speak both Tuvan and Russian. Andrei and his wife also speak English, which they are teaching themselves with pieces of paper labeled in English pasted onto seemingly every object in their modern kitchen in Kyzyl. They work as musicians in the Tuvan National Orchestra, an ensemble that uses traditional Tuvan instruments and melodies in symphonic arrangements. Andrei is a master of the most characteristic Tuvan music form: throat singing, or khoomei.
B When I ask university students in Kyzyl what Tuvan words are untranslatable into English or Russian, they suggest khoomei, because the singing is so connected with the Tuvan environment that only a native can understand it, and also khoj ozeeri, the Tuvan method of killing a sheep. If slaughtering livestock can be seen as part of humans’ closeness to animals, khoj ozeeri represents an unusually intimate version. Reaching through an incision in the sheep’s hide, the slaughterer severs a vital artery with his fingers, allowing the animal to quickly slip away without alarm, so peacefully that one must check its eyes to see if it is dead. In the language of the Tuvan people, khoj ozeeri means not only slaughter but also kindness, humaneness, a ceremony by which a family can kill, skin, and butcher a sheep, salting its hide and preparing its meat and making sausage with the saved blood and cleansed entrails so neatly that the whole thing can be accomplished in two hours (as the Mongushes did this morning) in one’s good clothes without spilling a drop of blood. Khoj ozeeri implies a relationship to animals that is also a measure of a people’s character. As one of the students explained, “If a Tuvan killed an animal the way they do in other places”~by means of a gun or knife—“they’d be arrested for brutality.”
C Tuvan is one of the many small languages of the world. The Earth’s population of seven billion people speaks roughly 7,000 languages, a statistic that would seem to offer each living language a healthy one million speakers, if things were equitable. In language, as in life, things aren’t. Seventy-eight percent of the world’s population speaks the 85 largest languages, while the 3,500 smallest languages share a mere 8.25 million speakers. Thus, while English has 328 million first-language speakers, and Mandarin 845 million, Tuvan speakers in Russia number just 235,000. Within the next century, linguists think, nearly half of the world’s current stock of languages may disappear. More than a thousand are listed as critically or severely endangered~teetering on the edge of oblivion.
D In an increasingly globalized, connected, homogenized age, languages spoken in remote places are no longer protected by national borders or natural boundaries from the languages that dominate world communication and commerce. The reach of Mandarin and English and Russian and Hindi and Spanish and Arabic extends seemingly to every hamlet, where they compete with Tuvan and Yanomami and Altaic in a house-to-house battle. Parents in tribal villages often encourage their children to move away from the insular language of their forebears and toward languages that will permit greater education and success.
E Who can blame them? The arrival of television, with its glamorized global materialism, its luxury-consumption proselytizing, is even more irresistible. Prosperity, it seems, speaks English. One linguist, attempting to define what a language is, famously (and humorously) said that a language is a dialect with an army. He failed to note that some armies are better equipped than others. Today any language with a television station and a currency is in a position to obliterate those without, and so residents of Tuva must speak Russian and Chinese if they hope to engage with the surrounding world. The incursion of dominant Russian into Tuva is evident in the speaking competencies of the generation of Tuvans who grew up in the mid-20th century, when it was the fashion to speak, read, and write in Russian and not their native tongue.
F Yet Tuvan is robust relative to its frailest counterparts, some of which are down to a thousand speakers, or a mere handful, or even one individual. Languages like Wintu, preaictln 经 a native tongue in California, or Siletz Dee-ni, in Oregon, or Amurdak, an Aboriginal tongue in Australia’s Northern Territory, retain only one or two fluent or semifluent speakers. A last speaker with no one to talk to exists in unspeakable solitude.
G Increasingly, as linguists recognize the magnitude of the modern language die-off and rush to catalog and decipher the most vulnerable tongues, they are confronting underlying questions about languages’ worth and utility. Does each language have boxed up within it some irreplaceable beneficial knowledge? Are there aspects of cultures that won’t survive if they are translated into a dominant language? What unexpected insights are being lost to the world with the collapse of its linguistic variety?
H Fortunately, Tuvan is not among the world’s endangered languages, but it could have been. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the language has stabilized. It now has a well-equipped army—not a television station, yet, or a currency, but a newspaper and a respectable 264,000 total speakers (including some in Mongolia and China). Yet Tofa, a neighboring Siberian language, is down to some 30 speakers. Tuvan’s importance to our understanding of disappearing languages lies in another question linguists are struggling to answer: What makes one language succeed while another dwindles or dies?
Questions 1-8 Complete the following summary of the paragraphs of Reading Passage, using no more than two words from the Reading Passage for each answer. Write your answers in boxes 1-8 on your answer sheet.
Although geographically Tuva is located in central Asia, people there are 1 ………………. and 2 ………………. marginalized. For example, some of the words like 3 ………………. and 4 ………………. in Tuvan can not directly be translated into other languages since they are so integrated with the environment that only the local people can get what they really mean. The number of Tuvan speakers pales in comparion with that of 5 ………………. and 6 ………………. . The generation of Tuvans growing up in mid-20th century have more passion for 7 ………………. instead of their mother language. Although the situation with Tuvan is much better than a Siberian language 8 ………………. which has less than 50 speakers, it could have been endangered.
Questions 9-13 Do the following statements agree with the information given in Reading Passage 1? In boxes 9-13 on your answer sheet, write
TRUE if the sataement agrees with the information
FALSE if the statement contradicts the information
NOT GIVEN if there is no information on this
9 Andrei and his wife can speak English because they have learned it at school.
10 Khoj ozeeri means nothing other than killing.
11 A Tuvan would be judged to have a bad character if he killed an animal with a gun or a knife.
12 Nowadays languages in the world are spoken disproportionately.
13 Some aspects of culture are doomed to loss if one vulnerable language is translated into a dominant language.