If 50% of animal species in the world were in danger of becoming extinct by the end of the century, many people would stand up to take action to prevent the loss of such biodiversity. While our planet isn’t looking at such a drastic extinction in terms of animal species, we are facing an equally grave problem related to language. Currently, roughly 7000 languages are spoken in the world today. By the end of this century, it is estimated that 50% of them will lose their last speaker, and so will no longer be spoken and heard. There are several factors that can cause language loss, including globalization, impacts of colonization, urbanization, and other group external or internal factors.
But why is this such a problem? Wouldn’t it be better if everyone spoke the same language? The simple answer is no. Linguistic and knowledge diversity, much like the world’s biological diversity, is essential to humanity’s cultural vitality and resilience. Local languages and knowledge integrate generations of successful ecological adaptations and are vital resources for understanding and conserving the earth’s biological and cultural diversity. They are also essential for helping humanity forge more productive futures. Each grammar preserves an alternative scenario of the development of human thought, while local vocabularies offer alternative insights into the natural world. Similarly cultural practices and their material manifestations offer critical insight into different ways of engaging and understanding the world. Language and knowledge diversity are integral to what make us human, encoding components of our diverse intellectual patrimony that are critical to current scientific and societal agendas. The loss of these languages and knowledge systems is a local problem with global repercussions.
Recovering Voices’ researchers seek to document these languages and knowledge systems and collaborate with communities in order to help sustain and revitalize them. A Smithsonian Initiative, Recovering Voices is housed at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), and in partnership between NMNH and the National Museum of the American Indian and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Each of these museums has a long legacy of working with communities around the world on issues of tangible and intangible heritage. Collectively, Recovering Voices gives this work a new platform through which we can better serve communities around the world. Recovering Voices also partners with other institutions and organizations, including the University of Hawaii, the Endangered Languages Fund, The Myaamia Center, Cultural Survival, UNESCO, and the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Program, to further the goals of language and cultural revitalization. We are striving to make a difference in the trends of language and knowledge loss through continued research, public outreach, community collaboration, and utilization of our vast archival and collections resources.