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How to Prevent Language Extinction

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language distribution

Random distribution of monolingual speakers of languages X (X axis) and Y (Y axis) in the population.

Credit: Universidade de Santiago de Compostela

Two-thirds of the world's languages are in danger of extinction, being nudged toward oblivion by the overwhelming use of English, Spanish, Russian, Hindi, and Mandarin. A new mathematical model of language competition developed by the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela's Jose Mira and colleagues indicates that this threat can be countered.

Early analyses studied a stable population in which two languages competed for speakers who selected one over the other depending on their perceived socioeconomic benefits as well as their similarity. However, the researchers' studies point to the development of bilingual speakers as a force for co-evolution of several competing dialects. They say languages can coexist in a stable fashion over a prolonged period, but that this outcome depends greatly on the initial circumstances. "An exogenous injection of just a few speakers into one group or another can determine whether a language lives or dies," note Mira and his fellow researchers.

The implication of this conclusion is that it may be possible to improve the chances of survival for languages under threat of extinction by creating bilingual speakers in one of the major language groups.

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