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Saving cultures and languages

The coverage in Afghanistan has revealed the great diversity of cultures and languages in the country. It is not uncommon now to hear ordinary Westerners talking about peoples who were previously known mostly only to experts.

Such diversity is also common throughout much of the Asia Pacific region. Many of the languages and cultures in the region have vanished recently or are endangered.

Everyone agrees that is of extreme importance to preserve each and everyone of these if at all possible. In most cases, those that are endangered belong to small populations that are under pressure to assimilate in their respective countries.

Language survival is not associated with civilization or stages of advancement. Ancient Egyptian flourished for thousands of years in a culture that awed Athens and Rome. Yet today, the language is gone and its only close relative is used only in the Orthodox liturgy by Christian Copts.

Sumerian is another language, like Egyptian, associated with one of the world's earliest civilizations. Sumerian survived for hundreds of years after the Sumerians themselves had vanished. It was used by the Babylonians, Assyrians and others as an elite literary language.

Yet in the end it too bit the dust.

The cultures and languages that are under threat today are survivors that have withstood the test of thousands of years. Each represents the heritage of countless generations.

Fortunately we live in a world that is much more tolerant of different cultures that it was before. Most people now are able to see the value in ways that are not their own.

But solutions are difficult. Trying to isolate "tribal" cultures has not really worked. The world is simply too small these days. While many may see the need to preserve their languages and cultures, they may not be willing to live in conditions so far behind the rest of their neighbors.

Thus, while there have been many valiant and often successful efforts at language and culture revival ranging from Manchu to Native Hawaiian, there are still many problems to be addressed.

If a person wants to improve their living conditions and they believe the only way to this is by assimilation, the results will often be predictable.

There has to be a viable method that integrates the best of the old with the best of the new, and with economic opportunity.

Nations like Singapore and Switzerland have taken the multi-lingual approach with multiple official languages in each country. The idea that unity requires melting everyone down into one homogenous culture is and should be a thing of the past.

At the same time, we have to make sure that peoples under threat have options in lifestyle while they continue to preserve their languages and traditions. Keeping the faith should not mean remaining poor and neglected.