Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language

Big History may indicate why we're losing diversity in the number of languages on Earth.

Yesterday, I saw an interesting linguistic exercise:

Short activity to show how flexible our language is and how difficult collective learning would have been for our non sapiens ancestors.

Step 1: As a class, choose 200 random words. (I had 15 kids choose 14 words each)

Step 2: Answer the following questions using only the words listed:

  1. How should we try to kill that mammoth?
  2. Explain why you should marry me.
  3. Give directions for a simple task.
  4. Come up with a plan to improve our cave.
  5. Describe a physical landscape.
  6. Come up with your own question!
Chris Scaturo
on February 3 at 8:44am in Yammer Group on Big History: Unit 6 – Early Humans Group

I have to imagine that once the conceptualization of language and some basic grammar existed, word generation was a much more common thing than it is now. It’s only been since the time of Noah Webster that humans have been actively standardizing things like spelling. If we can use Papua New Guinea as a model of pre-agrarian society and consider that almost 12% of extant languages on the Earth are spoken in an area about the size of Texas (and with about 1/5th the population of Texas too), then modern societies are actually severely limiting language (creation, growth, diversity, creativity, etc.) [cross reference: A World of Languages – and How Many Speak Them (Infographic)]

Consider that the current extinction of languages is about one every 14 weeks, which puts us on a course to loose about half of the 7,100 languages on the planet right now before the end of the century. Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language! In the paper “Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk” the authors indicate that of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.

To help put this exercise into perspective, we can look at the corpus of extant written Latin (a technically dead language):

“It is a truly impressive fact that, simply by knowing that if one can memorize and master about 250 words in Latin, it will allow them to read and understand 50% of most written Latin. Further, knowledge of 1,500 Latin words will put one at the 80% level of vocabulary mastery for most texts. Mastering even a very small list of vocabulary allows one to read a large variety of texts very comfortably.”
with data from Dickinson College Commentaries

These numbers become even smaller when considering ancient Greek texts.

Another interesting measurement is the vocabulary of a modern 2 year old who typically has a 50-75 word vocabulary while a 4 year old has 250-500 words, which is about the level of the exercise.

As a contrast, consider the message in this TED Youth Talk from last year by Erin McKean, which students should be able to relate to:

And of course, there’s the dog Chaser, which 60 minutes recently reported has a vocabulary of over 1,000 words. (Are we now destroying variants of “dog language” for English too?!)

Hopefully the evolutionary value of the loss of the multiple languages will be more than balanced out by the power of collective learning in the long run.

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