This Books That Grow original piece describes the process by which languages fall out of favor, and ultimately, become extinct. One of the most significant take-aways from this piece is that this process is not inherently natural, but the product of human intervention. Cultural imperialism, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the practice of promoting a more powerful culture over a lesser known, or seemingly “undesirable culture.” The displacement of native, or indigenous languages in favor of more global languages, like English, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin, are examples of cultural imperialism. In the piece, the historical replacement of native North American languages with Spanish and English, and the replacement of Aramaic with Arabic, are used to illustrate this point. The Aramaic example is particularly poignant for a number of reasons. For one, Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples. But even more importantly, the example demonstrates that cultural dominance is dynamic. At one point in time, Aramaic was the most widely spoken language in the entire Middle East, when it was still “the crossroads of the world,” and was used for commerce, worship, and government. If anything, the example is humbling because it makes it clear that every culture, no matter their present state of dominance, is not immune to laws of history that dictate the rise and fall of nations.

         In addition to describing the process by which languages go extinct, the author of this piece also describes the implications of this loss. One of the most readily apparent is a blow to the collective body of human knowledge. For example, if a language becomes extinct, that culture’s repository of history, science, art and literature is rendered indecipherable. Furthermore, also lost is that culture’s unique outlook on the world. The number of words, and their connotations, for a variety of both observable and intangible phenomenon reflect attitudes, beliefs, and values. In other words, when a language loses its culture, it also loses its soul.

This piece is perfect for a lesson on cultural studies, imperialism, and linguistics. It also works well as part of any social studies lesson, especially one about indigenous populations.


Standards Addressed:


Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.


Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style.


Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.


Before Reading

What comes to mind when you think of “imperialism?” When country’s engage in acts of imperialism, how do these acts impact the daily lives of the people being subjugated?


During Reading

How does the author differentiate between a dead and an extinct language? Use the text to support your answer. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.1)

 The piece begins with an anecdote about Marja Sergina and the decline of the Akkala Sami language. What does the essay gain by beginning with this anecdote? More specifically, what effect does it have on the reader? Justify your answer. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.5)


After Reading

According to the author, how do languages become extinct? In addition, when a language becomes extinct, what are the negative implications? Support your answer with examples from the text. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.2)

Applying Knowledge Outside The Classroom

Research a language that is on the verge of extinction, and the people who speak it. What challenges do these native speakers speak? As best as you can, highlight the rules of syntax and grammar that govern the language.


Further Readings 

For Students:

This link provides students with a valuable resource to help them understand the nature of language extinction, and the degree of its prevalence.



Domain-Specific Vocabulary:

extinct/extinction, grammar, syntax

G8 Challenging Vocabulary:

intangible (8), waning (8), dejected (8), gamut (8), scholastic (8), signifies (7), quantitative (7), posterity (7), ecological (7), statistics (7), converse (6), fluent (6), centuries/century (6), minorities (6), biology (6)

G6 Challenging Vocabulary:

converse (6), fluent (6), centuries/century (6), minorities (6), associate (6), professor (5), domination (5), divine (5), number/numbers (5), fate (5), motto (4), vast (4), abandon (4),  average (4), bilingual (4), depend (4)

G4 Challenging Vocabulary:

motto (4), vast (4), abandons (4), average (4), bilingual (4), depends (4), published (3), academic (3), native (3), current (3), culture (3), culture (3) barely (2), future (2), language (2), bell (2), daily (2), learn/learning/learned (2), royal (2), influence (2), amount (2), control (2), percent (2), switching (2), contain (2)

G2 Challenging Vocabulary:

barely (2), future (2), language (2), bell (2), daily (2), learn/learning/learned (2), influence (2), control (2), percent (2), switching (2), inches (1), remember (1), people (1), speak (1), many (1), job (1), mouth (0), bird (0), december (0), weeks (0), group (0)