Documenting the acquisition of endangered languages

Each year it happens that the last speakers of some language or other die. With them we loose a large part of our world heritage. This loss is not only dramatic for cultural reasons, but it also means that we are less and less able to study the plasticity of the human mind as it is reflected in the extraordinary variation found among the strucutures of the languages spoken around the globe.

Right now there are about 6000–7000 languages with large differences in their vocabularies and structures. There have been some far-reaching initiatives (DOBES, HRELP) to document endangered languages in recent years (DOBES brochure 'Bedrohte Sprachen'). However, there is no equivalent initiative to document how children learn these languages. This is especially dramatic as one of the biggest challenges faced by cognitive science is to explain what enables children to cope with the extreme variation found in the languages of the world. Such questions, however, can only be studied if we have the necessary data available. Given that (according to UNESCO estimates) more than 50% of the world's languages are endangered – and many of these languages are already dead from the point of view of language acquisition, because no children are learning them – this enterprise is more pressing then ever and deserves strong collaborative efforts from linguists who document languages and language acquisition researchers.

One of the focuses of the Psycholinguistics Research Unit is exactly this cooperation, which has already resulted in the documentation of an endangered Sino-Tibetan language spoken in the foothills fo the Himalya in Eastern Nepal. It is our goal to strengthen this effort and extend our documentation work to other languages, including some endangered languages spoken in Switzerland such as the Rhaeto-Romance languages.

Bedrohte Sprachen, Spektrum der Wissenschaft 6/2013.

Nakhutticaihattibiri, UZH-Magazin 3/2014.