There’s another potential loss in addition to cultural diversity, it’s the loss of data about the scope and varieties of language, which can be important in understanding how the brain works and how we think.
Language extinction is not a new phenomenon at all.
True. Over the course of human evolution we’ve probably lost some 100,000 languages (a ballpark figure, no one really knows), which makes the potential loss of 3,000 more seem not so significant.
But the pace with which languages are dying is unprecedented. We’re likely to lose half the world’s languages in a single human lifetime. That’s new.
Humans, by nature, standardize their languages to meet this need.
By nature we diversify our languages just as much as we standardize them. Languages grow as big as the cultures with which people identify. For most of human evolution, this has meant a cap of about 500 speakers of a given language, the most that could form a cohesive cultural group. The advent of cities allowed the numbers to grow bigger. And the large scale urbanization that accompanied the industrial revolution increased it exponentially. (When this happened varies with the region. Starting in the seventeenth century in Europe, but the twentieth century in Africa.) It’s not simply trade and global economics, it’s when people uproot themselves and move that language death happens. Mass communications doesn’t cause language death, but it is a necessary tool for maintaining the larger cultural groups.
So what we’re seeing today is very different than in the past.
It is not efficient for everyone to be speaking a different language.
Bilingualism and trilingualism is the norm for humans, and code switching between related dialects of is even more common. Multiple languages need not be a bar to communication. The rise of Global English as a second language is not the problem. Learning another language does not mean forgetting your native tongue. Language death is a multi-generational process, where the children are no longer taught their parent’s native tongue. (Which is another ding against Millar’s comments. Language death has nothing to do with bilingualism. So it doesn’t matter if “bilingualism strengthens the brain” or not. Which I agree is a silly claim.)
But I agree the comparison to biodiversity is facile. The survival of our species is not threatened by language death.