“How important is language and cultural preservation to the survival of a people?”

Language, Culture, and Identity

Language and culture are intricately related and interdependent on one another. Language is an integral part of culture, while culture is largely influenced and impacted by language. Many linguists hold the view that languages are unique, cultural treasures. As part of our cultural identity as humans, language is representative of our respective heritages and history. It connects people with their ancestors, their native lands, and it is an essential part of their history and how they see themselves in the world. But due to modernity and globalization, we are seeing the accelerated decline, and in many cases loss of languages, while the economically powerful languages continue to dominate.

How and Why Do Languages Die?

It is estimated that there are about 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, but about 35% of them are losing speakers or are more seriously endangered. Language loss or language death occurs when a language has no more native speakers, or more specifically, when the last known speaker dies, thus making it a dead language. So, how and why do languages die exactly? A variety of factors and situations, often combined, contributes to the decline and ultimately the tragic demise of a language; these reasons can be political, economic, and cultural in nature.

Languages can die out quickly when:

  • Small, concentrated communities of speakers are wiped out by natural disasters , famine, and disease.
  • War and genocide takes place.
  • Speakers become bilingual and they begin to lose proficiency in their native languages
    • This typically happens when speakers seek to adopt the language of the land for social and economic advantages or to avoid discrimination. For example, 2nd generation immigrants in the U.S. often do not speak their parents’ native languages fluently, due to the economic and cultural benefits of speaking the language of the land, which in this case is English.
  • Migration plays a significant role in language change and death.
  • It is also important to note that political repression and cultural hegemony and marginalization are also causes which prevent or discourage speakers from using a language.

When a language dies out, future generations lose a vital part of their cultural heritage.

UNESCO defines 4 degrees of language endangerment between “safe” and “extinct”:

  1. vulnerable (not spoken by children outside of the home)
  2. definitely endangered (children or younger generations do not grow up speaking the language)
  3. severely endangered (language is only spoken by the older generations)
  4. critically endangered (the language is spoken by few members of the oldest generation, often semi-speakers, or those who have a partially limited command of the language use).

The Future of Igbo Language?

800px-Nigeria_Benin_Cameroon_languages.pngLinguistic Map of Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon.

Igbo is a tonal language in the Niger-Congo family that is spoken by nearly 25 million people with more than 20 different dialects. According to UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Igbo language may be facing the threat of extinction by the year 2025, (which is a little less than 9 years from now), if nothing is done to stop or reverse the decline.

Many scholars and proponents of Igbo language also fear the same as our world increasingly becomes more globalized, many cultural values and traditions, language included, are gradually disappearing or becoming diluted.

What caused the decline in Igbo language use?

The decline in Igbo language use can be traced to:

  • British colonization and the subjugation of Igbo culture and language to English culture
  • Religion and Western education
  • Most primary and secondary schools in Nigeria do not offer Igbo language in their curriculum thereby setting the stage for the slow death of the language
  • Sadly, some parents have even stopped raising their children to speak the language, but rather encourage and reinforce English speaking in the home.

    What can be done???
    Language Revival vs. Language Revitalization


Language revival: the resurrection of a dead language with no existing native speakers.
Language revitalization:
the rescue of a “dying” language.

Language revitalization, also known as language revival or reversing language shift, is an attempt by linguists, governments, and community groups to halt or reverse the decline of a language or to revive an extinct one.

David Crystal in his book Language Death proposes 6 factors to help a declining language progress.

  1. Increase the language’s prestige within the dominant community.
  2. Increase the wealth and income of speakers.
  3. Increase speakers power in the eyes of the dominant community.
  4. Ensure that speakers have a strong presence in the education system.
  5. The language should have a written form and literacy should be encouraged.
  6. There should be a possibility of access to electronic technology.



How can we revive the usage of Igbo language, (or other African languages), particularly in the Diaspora?

  • Exposure to and acquisition of the language at a young age.
  • Employ language immersion techniques.
    • Engaging in conversations with native or near-native speakers, watching TV/movies/multimedia, (with subtitles preferably), in the language, listening to music.
  • Address different varieties of the language (vernacular, dialect, …)
  • Encourage parents to use the language with their children.
  • Find language partners or groups.
  • Understand that language revitalization is a long process – don’t give up!
  • Make a deliberate effort to engage in the language, (whether by reading, speaking, listening, or writing), everyday!

Don’t forget to join us at Igbo Conversation Hour at International House every 2nd Friday of the month! Follow us on Facebook for more updates!


***For more information on the topic of language in society, please visit the following links:

Language Shift & Death in Africa
Language & Identity: A Case of Igbo Language
Code-switching in Igbo-English Bilingualism
Saving Igbo Language From Extinction
Sociolinguistic Functions of Igbo Language
Igbo Language & Its Downward Trend
About World Languages: Igbo
Why Do Languages Die?
Language Loss, Causes, and Cures
Endangered Languages: Why So Many Are Becoming Extinct?
UNESCO Prediction on the Extinction of Igbo Language in 2025
Igbo As An Endangered Language
Language Endangerment: Issues of Igbo Proverbs
UNESCO & Endangered Igbo Language
When Languages Die, We Lose
Disappearing Languages
Opinion Piece: Endangered Igbo Language
What Is An Endangered Language
Can A First Language Be Forgotten?
Remembering Childhood Languages
You Never Forget Your Mother Tongue
How Not to Lose First Language
Teach Yourself Igbo


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