THE recent news that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) is working on the preservation of the Kelabit and Bidayuh languages in Sarawak comes hardly as a surprise.
It has been more than five years since linguistics experts warned that of the more than 6,000 languages that are spoken around the world, nearly all could be extinct in the next 200 years.
Only 600 languages are confidently expected to survive this century, according to MIT Indigenous Language Initiative in the United States. Unless there are billions of native speakers of a particular language, it is only a matter of time before it will be listed on The Red Book of Endangered Languages published by Unesco.
Sarawak State Welfare, Women and Family Development Minister Datuk Fatimah Abdullah is right when she pointed out that other minority native groups will also risk losing their languages if no effort is taken to preserve and promote them.
One qualification that needs to be highlighted is the word "minority". It is not just about numbers per se, but more so the number of people using the language. Though Latin, for example, is considered a "dead" language alongside the Ancient Roman Empire, chances are there are more people who speak and use Latin than a "living" language such as Kelabit. The onus is on a country to protect minority languages from becoming extinct.
In Malaysia, the official language is Bahasa Malaysia, though some prefer to call it Bahasa Melayu, constitutionally speaking.
According to Fatimah, not many of the Bidayuh and Kelabit tribes speak the languages in their pure form these days because they opt to speak Bahasa Malaysia or English at home. The same could happen to Bahasa Malaysia if others chose not to speak or teach it, even though it is recognised as Bahasa Kebangsaan. This is where schools play a crucial role.
Professor Emeritus Michael Krauss at the University of Alaska in the US, who first sounded the warning at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in 2007, said the implication is "catastrophic for the future of mankind".
He said: "It should be as scary as losing 90 per cent of the biological species." After all, according to him, from an ethical standpoint, all languages are of equal value, but the value of a language goes far beyond academic discourse.
He noted that languages contain the intellectual wisdom of populations of people. They contain their observations of and adaptations to the world around them. Humanity becomes human in a complex system of languages that interacts with each other.
Krauss, a recipient of the Ken Hale prize for lifetime achievement from the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas, further cautioned: "Every time we lose (a language), we lose that much also of our adaptability and our diversity that give us our strength and our ability to survive."
In the current debate about the use of English as a medium of instruction (not merely as a second language), the points raised by Krauss have not been given enough articulation.
Take the experiences of Patricia Ruth, a United Kingdom-born language teacher who spent most of the past 40 years teaching English in Arabian Gulf countries, and is currently teaching at Zayed University in Dubai.
Ruth speaks passionately about language loss and the globalisation of English, in the highly acclaimed TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk entitled Don't Insist On English! (www.ted.com/talks/patricia_ryan_ideas_in_all_languages_not_just_english.html?awesm>on.ted.com_9ETS).
The ultimate question then is what becomes of the rich global cultural and intellectual diversity and wisdom that are closely linked to languages?
It is not just limited to the issue of language per se, but as Krauss puts it, of adaptability, strength and ability to survive.
On May 27, this column highlighted some recent brain research findings that reveal that it is insufficient to be just "monolingual" in dealing with today's complexities.
It is vital to finely balance the socio-cultural and socio-economic dimensions too! In fact, some argue that the socio-cultural imperatives may even outweigh that of socio-economics in future decades.
Unfortunately, the ongoing discussion seems to be leaning towards the latter, at the expense of the former! And this is certainly not desirable from the perspective of nation-building, indeed as Krauss highlighted for the "future of (hu)mankind".
So let us be forewarned in rushing to make a popular decision!