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Sep 04, 2014 03:22 AM EDT

Economic Growth Causes Extinction of Aboriginal Languages, Study

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Economic boom triggers language extinction, according to a University of Cambridge study.

The researchers urge the United Nations to pay attention to hotspots in both developed (north Australia and the north-western corners of the US and Canada) and developing (Himalayan regions, Brazil and Nepal) countries, where languages are in danger of extinction. Global leaders must keenly participate in the preservation of linguistic diversity.

In the northwest corner of North America, the languages of the local people are vanishing at an alarming rate. For example, Upper Tanana - a language spoken by indigenous Athabaskan people in eastern Alaska - had only 24 active speakers in 2009 and was no longer being learnt by the children there. In 2008, it was reported that just one person could fluently speak the Wichita language of the Plains Indians in Oklahoma.

On the other hand, aboriginal languages like Margu and Rembarunga from the peninsulas of Australia's Northern Territories are dying at a faster rate.

For the study, the researchers used the same criteria for describing endangered species proposed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to determine the occurrence and frequency of language loss.

There are three main risk factors: small population size (small number of speakers), small geographical habitat range and population change (the decline in speaker numbers).

Using language datasets against these risk factors, the researchers found that the levels of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita was directly proportional to the loss of language diversity. In other words, the more successful economically, the more rapid disappearance of languages was observed.

"As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation's political and educational spheres. People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risked being left out in the cold - economically and politically," said Dr Tatsuya Amato from the Department of Zoology said in a press release.

"Of course everyone has the right to choose the language they speak, but preserving dying language is important to maintaining human cultural diversity in an increasingly globalised world."

The researchers said that languages are vanishing at a rate faster than the appalling loss of biodiversity.

A previous study by Cambridge's Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics showed that people who speak more than one language fare well in education, cognition and social interaction.

"As economies develop, there is increasing advantage in learning international languages such as English, but people can still speak their historically traditional languages. Encouraging those bilingualisms will be critical to preserving linguistic diversity," said Amano.

The finding is published in the journal Proceedings of Royal Society B.

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