This short excerpt seeks to digest several factors contributing to language extinction, alternatively language death, and the solutions thereof.
Language extinction is when the level of linguistic competence that speakers possess of a given language variety is decreased, eventually resulting in no native or fluent speakers of the variety.
It is worth mentioning that the world’s languages are disappearing at a fast rate, and Namibia is no exception. One scholar, Sallabank (2010), estimates that by 2100, almost 90% of the world’s languages would be severely endangered.
One notable case of an endangered language in Namibia on the brink of dying out is the #Akhoe Haillom. This language belongs to the Khoe or central Khoisan group. Like other Khoekhoegowab languages, it uses click sounds and history tells us that it once boasted with an estimated 7 500 native speakers.
To this end, the figure has since dwindled to only a few isolated speakers or none at all. This worrisome phenomenon is not only unique to the mentioned language but applies to many other indigenous languages of Namibia.
This large-scale disappearance of these indigenous languages calls for concerted efforts by stakeholders such as government, language speakers, scholars and researchers to intensify efforts of language documentation. This exercise involves recording the voices of the few remaining native speakers of the language and creating linguistic archives for future reference.
Most importantly, we ought to understand the phases our languages go through before extinction. UNESCO’s Atlas of Languages in Danger of Disappearing (2009) provides the standard to which languages can be categorised according to their degree of endangerment.
The first level is known as safe, wherein a language is spoken by all generations and its intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted. At this level the language faces no threat or it is not in any danger of elimination.
The second level is definitely endangered, meaning children no longer learn the language as mother-tongue in their homes, instead adopt another language, say English, at the expense of their ancestral tongue.
Severely endangered is the third level of language endangerment, which entails that the language is only spoken by grandparents and older generations. The parent generation may understand it, but do not speak it to their children or even among themselves.
And, the fourth level is known as critically endangered, wherein the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they only speak the language partially and infrequently.
The last level is known as extinct or alternatively language death, which entails that there are no speakers left for a specific language, resulting in its disappearance.
Notably, there are several contributing factors to the disappearance of languages, among others are economic factors, for example, abandoning own language in favour of another because of its associated economic benefits.
English, for instance, has become a global language of trade, job opportunities, business, education, entertainment, sports, politics and so forth. Therefore, those that are looking for the mentioned opportunities would prefer to acquire English because of its opportunities.
Political factors, for example, and education policies which exclude or ignore indigenous languages. Aspects of lack of political will to equally develop the indigenous languages and accord them equal status.
The lack of documentation of some languages because of discriminatory practises. Cultural dominance by the majority language resulting in overshadowing the minority languages. As a result the minority speakers will shift to the majority language.
Historical factors, for instance, colonisation and the way it shaped inequality amongst the indigenous languages. In Namibia, native speakers were forced to adopt the language of the oppressors [Afrikaans/German] at the expense of their own tongues.
Attitudinal factors, wherein minority language speakers perceive their languages as inferior and associate them with illiteracy, low status and poverty. The ultimate result of this will be language shift by these speakers.
Having deliberated on the causes of language extinction or death, one would want to contemplate possible solutions to the issue at hand.
Some of the possible remedies include but are not limited to scholars/researchers to record texts of the last remaining speakers of these endangered languages. Linguists can also help indigenous people of the endangered languages to write dictionaries and grammar books so that the future generation can be saved.
This can also help the current school children who are participating in bilingual education programs to have the basic foundation and tools for learning their languages. In addition, tertiary institutions should be in the forefront of establishing specialised indigenous language courses tailor-made to train linguists and researchers.
A good example in this regard is the University of Namibia which, over the years, has been offering teaching and other qualifications in indigenous languages such as Khoekhoegowab, Oshindonga, Oshikwanyama, Silozi, Otjiherero, and so forth.
Once this foundation is established, native speakers can now be encouraged to take up language courses and join the efforts to document those languages and teach the Namibian child his/her ancestral language. Another example of language preservation worth emulating is that of California (USA), where some American Indian groups have set up immersion programs and master-apprentice programs so that the educated, the elders and fluent speakers of Indian languages can mentor the young generation in acquiring the knowledge base of the language and pass it on over generations. This effort could be replicated to specific endangered language(s) in Namibia.
It is thus incumbent upon us as, firstly, custodians of our own ancestral languages, and secondly, native speakers to take pride in our languages and safeguard them against threats which might hamper their very existence and development. As the saying goes “humanity’s own existence is embedded in the language, when language fades, so does its cultural diversity.”
* Beven Liswani Kamwi is a post-graduate student in intercultural communication at Stellenbosch University. He teaches English at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). The views expressed are entirely his and not of his employer.