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Documenting the Endangered Languages and Cultures of Africa's West Coast
Documenting the Endangered Languages and Cultures of Africa's West Coast

Over the past century, global biodiversity has declined at an alarming rate, raising concerns of a worldwide extinction crisis in the twenty-first century. At the same time, a similar crisis is affecting linguistic diversity. And, while the latter has received considerably less attention, the situation is dire: linguists around the world warn of a looming mass extinction of languages and the cultures that use them in the decades ahead.


The Endangered Languages Project, a website originally developed by Google and managed by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council and a team of linguists at the University of Hawaii at Māona, considers a language “endangered” when children no longer learn it as their “mother tongue” at home. And while there are various reasons a language may not be transmitted from one generation to the next, linguists typically refer to the process as “language shift,” a social phenomenon in which a community replaces one language with another.


According to the Endangered Languages Catalogue, which provides information to the Endangered Languages Project, the world is losing roughly one language every three months. Such an unprecedented rate of loss could result in the extinction of between fifty and ninety percent of the world’s languages by the end of the century.
“We’re losing languages and the cultures encoded within them all over the world,” said Dr. Tucker Childs, chair of Portland State University’s Department of Applied Linguistics. “You can travel almost anywhere and find languages that have been pushed to the periphery of society by social and ecological changes that tend to support majority languages. Throughout the world you find languages that have fallen out of favor with speaking communities who see greater advantages and more opportunities for speakers of more popular regional or European languages. On every continent except Antarctica there are scores of languages with just a handful of speakers remaining. In many cases, when those speakers are gone, their language will be, too.”


For two decades, Dr. Childs has documented and archived languages of West Africa. He conducts much of his research in remote villages in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, where his work has been critical in efforts to preserve and revitalize endangered languages in the area including Mani, Bom, Kim, and presently Sherbro. Childs is continuing that work this year, traveling among several coastal communities and islands on the central coast of Sierra Leone to document the language and culture of a people who call themselves the “Bolom” and are known to the world at large as the “Sherbro.”


“Sherbro is an endangered and poorly documented language,” Dr. Childs said. “Fewer and fewer children learn it at home. People are adopting other more widely used and favored languages spoken in the region. As a result, we’re observing a massive language shift that could result in the loss of the language within a generation or two.”


Working with the Sherbro people, fellow researchers, and colleagues from the University of Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College, Dr. Childs’s project is to record the Sherbro language and culture before they disappear. According to Childs, the team will document people using Sherbro in as many contexts as possible. In addition to cataloging the language, creating a dictionary of Sherbro, and preparing a grammar, the team will document traditional genres including song, music, and dance using audio and video recordings as well as photography. The research plan includes documenting daily activities such as fishing, food preparation, and social interactions between residents of the island and surrounding areas. The recordings will be transcribed, translated, annotated, and preserved for future study and use. The project includes the preparation of Sherbro language pedagogical materials the Sherbro people can use to preserve and revitalize their language should they choose to. Throughout the documentary phase of the study, Childs and his team will train members of the community to develop local capacity to continue supporting the language after the fieldwork is complete and the research team has left. All the materials collected and produced by Dr. Childs and his team will be given to the Sherbro people and Fourah Bay College, and cataloged in the archives of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.


“It is critically important to preserve the world’s endangered languages,” Dr. Childs said. “These languages contain generations of cultural and ecological knowledge and present a part of a diversity that we don’t want to lose. That knowledge can lead us to discoveries and insights into our past, present, and future. Languages like Sherbro can help us understand who we are as human beings. It is also a core part of its speakers’ identity.”


There are roughly 7,100 languages in the world today. And yet, half the global population, some 3.7 billion people, communicates using just twenty-three of those languages. Of the remaining 7,077 languages, some have fewer than ten speakers, while others have as many as 100,000. For many of those languages revitalization is out of the question.


There is a danger that, as linguistic diversity declines, social homogeneity will increase, leaving us with fewer words and concepts with which to explore the richness of humanity and the world. Though the world’s linguistic diversity is vanishing at nearly the same rate as its biodiversity and in many of the same places, there are linguists like Dr. Childs and other conservationists endeavoring to preserve our linguistic diversity. They do so both by encouraging the revitalization of languages, just as one might revitalize an ecosystem, or by preserving and cataloging languages for future generations, just as one might store seeds in a seed bank. It is because of their work that future generations will be able to study the cultural and linguistic diversity of the twenty-first century even if many of those language and cultures have been lost.


Note: The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (MDP0316) supported research highlighted in this article.