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World’s languages silenced by COVID-19 pandemic

Wednesday, 06 May 2020


Language has been a silent victim in the COVID-19 pandemic, and ECU language expert warns the damage may be irreparable.

Dr Annamaria Paolino, a language researcher in ECU’s School of Education reflected on how the loss of the world’s older generations could affect the language and culture of nations.

“UNESCO predicts that half of the world’s languages would be lost by the end of the 21st Century and scientists estimate that one language is lost every two weeks,” Dr Paolino said.

“If the scientists are right, the world has already lost seven languages in the three months of the COVID -19 pandemic.”

Dr Paolino said many of the world’s languages are at risk of extinction were found in regions of the world that have been hit hard by COVID-19 such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, France and Italy.

“The region of Lombardia (Lombardy) in Italy has lost more than 14,000 people to COVID-19, which has mainly hit the Silent Generation (1928 – 1946) and The Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964).

“They are generations who have defined modern Italy, lived through the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, Gli Azzurri (Italy’s much-loved soccer team) winning two World Cups, Mussolini and Hitler signing the Rome-Berlin Axis, the Liberation of Milan, the capture and execution of Mussolini and the birth of the Italian Republic.

“These regional dialects are entwined within the historical and cultural fabric of the country and much will be lost with their passing.”

Youth interest in dialect may be too late

Dr Paolino said Italy had seen an increased interest in younger generations wanting to learn their regional dialects over the past few years.

“They have been learning dialect with a renewed sense of ‘campanalismo’- a connectedness symbolised by local pride and a sense of belonging,” Dr Paolino said.

“The majority of these young people were learning them through their interactions with their nonni (grandparents) and bisnonni (great-grandparents)– conversations, stories, cooking and songs that have tragically now been laid to rest with their loved ones.”

Dr Paolino said the forced slow down of society gave people the chance to reflect upon their place in the global community and to play a small part in protecting our rich cultural history.

“I encourage everyone to spend the time to learn a language – whether it be a standard language or dialect as both need protecting,” she said.

“You don’t have to look to other countries to find a language to learn. In Australia, of the 250 traditional indigenous languages once spoken, only 100 are spoken by older generations, with only 13 of these currently being learned by children and only 40 of the 800 indigenous dialects survive.”


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