Quick class 7: When we lose a language – A2/B1

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What is language? What do we lose when a language is no longer spoken by anyone?


Before we understand what language is, we need to understand what signs are. And we could say that signs are entities which live inside and outside of our heads and communicate something. Sometimes, a sign communicates something unintentionally, like when a doctor sees a particular mark on an exam or on someone’s skin and identifies the disease that this person has. But a sign may also be a word. And a word communicates something. And when we think about all the languages that still exist and have no written form, we can clearly understand how signs come in all these different forms which are perceived through senses, such as sounds, tastes, smells and, of course, visual signs, which make us relate to other signs in our heads, which then decode the information, leading us to form the right meanings in our brains.


The disappearance of languages has the expected causes: cultures dominating each other by force or by economic dependency. And the cultures which are dominated by another more powerful or more aggressive culture will often have to give up their language and adopt the language of the conqueror.


This is what we still see today in the Americas, where indigenous languages have mostly vanished because of cultural dominance.


Our main concern as linguists is that when a language disappears, its vocabulary and grammar vanish with it. Without the language system, we also lose its signs. This means that we will forever lose much of the knowledge that these people accumulated over centuries. So practical things like a combination of plants that can cure a disease or more abstract things like how these people understood the passage of time and the way they related to their spirituality are very sadly lost.


And so, the efforts made by linguists around the world has been that of recording and writing the grammar and the vocabulary of languages on the verge of extinction. But that of course doesn’t exactly solve the problem and that is because people would have stopped learning the language naturally, and we would still have a lot of knowledge which is just impossible to save.




  • Match the words and their correct definitions:
a)      Entity1)      A health disorder
b)      Unintentionally2)      Significance; message
c)      Disease3)      Anticipate; assume
d)      Perceive4)      Disappear; cease to exist
e)      Meaning5)      Very close to
f)       Expect6)      A being; something which exists independently
g)      Vanish7)      Notice; identify; realize
h)      On the verge of8)      Not on purpose





A -6; B -8; C -1; D -7; E -2; F -3; G -4; H -5

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