UNESCO has decided 2008 is the Year of Languages.
I called my stepmother earlier this afternoon. I had sent her an e-mail expressing regret that the English course she took when she first came to America was very bad - confidence counts for so much in learning a language, and if you start with a bad course it's easy to lose heart. She explained that she had been able to take the course because she had a scholarship; my father was not willing to pay for an English course. (My father was born in 1934; his earliest memories were of life during the Depression; he felt poor all his life.) She then explained that she now speaks Portuguese to my brother, but the language he is dying to learn is Italian. He saw the Rosetta Stone course online and wants it. Her view is that the language he should work on is Spanish, because a) it is used everywhere in Florida and b) it will help him with his Portuguese.
This all sounds terribly familiar. The last thing a child wants to learn is a language that shows some prospect of being useful. Sheer impracticality is one of the strongest points in a language's favour for the young learner. The main reason my French is so much better than my Spanish or Portuguese is, naturally, that I grew up in countries where there was no use for it. Hassan Abudu speaks of being forcefed various Ghanaian languages which the resentful brain declined to admit to long-term memory. My ex-husband David is an exceptionally gifted linguist; his parents knew a smattering of Yiddish, it was more widely spoken in the older generations; it comes as no surprise that DSL, while quite unable to bear the (to him) unspeakable tedium of Yiddish, was just waiting to be seduced to Old Norse, Arabic, Akkadian...
I can't help feeling that the project of saving languages starts from the false premise that the likeliest prospects for preservation are those with some sort of family connection to the current population of native speakers. We may need a different paradigm. We need to take in each other's washing.