Did you know that almost half of the world’s languages are endangered? That means they could disappear within this century, leaving behind a huge loss of cultural and linguistic diversity. In this article, we will explore the causes and consequences of language extinction, and what we can do to prevent it.
Language is one of the most powerful tools we have as humans. It allows us to communicate, express ourselves, share knowledge, and create bonds with others. Language is also a reflection of our identity, our history, our values, and our worldview. Each language is unique and carries a wealth of information that cannot be easily translated or replaced.
However, not all languages are equally valued or protected in today’s world. According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 1, there are about 6,700 languages spoken in the world today, but 2,900 of them are endangered. That means they have fewer than 10,000 speakers, and most of them are not being passed on to younger generations.
The situation is even more alarming for some languages that have only a handful of speakers left, or none at all. These languages are classified as critically endangered, severely endangered, or extinct. For example, the last speaker of Eyak, a Native American language from Alaska, died in 2008 2. The last two speakers of Ayapaneco, an indigenous language from Mexico, refused to talk to each other for years 3. And the last fluent speaker of Nuchatlaht, a First Nations language from Canada, died in 2016 4.
What Causes Language Extinction?
Language extinction is not a natural phenomenon. It is the result of various social, political, economic, and environmental factors that affect the speakers and their communities. Some of the main causes of language endangerment are:
- Colonization and oppression: Many indigenous languages have suffered from centuries of colonization and oppression by dominant groups that imposed their own languages and cultures on them. This often involved violence, discrimination, assimilation policies, boarding schools, and forced relocation 5.
- Globalization and urbanization: The increasing integration and mobility of the world has also contributed to language loss. Many people migrate from rural areas to urban centers or other countries in search of better opportunities and services. In the process, they may adopt the dominant languages of their new environments and abandon their native ones 6.
- Education and media: The lack of access to quality education and media in minority languages is another factor that hinders their transmission and maintenance. Many schools do not offer instruction or materials in indigenous or local languages, or even prohibit their use. Many media outlets do not broadcast or publish content in these languages either. As a result, many children and youth do not learn or use their ancestral languages 7.
- Attitudes and prestige: The low status and prestige of many endangered languages also affect their survival. Many speakers may feel ashamed or embarrassed to speak their languages in public or with outsiders. They may also perceive their languages as inferior or irrelevant in comparison to more widely spoken or powerful ones. This can lead to self-censorship, language shift, or language abandonment 8.
Why Does Language Extinction Matter?
Language extinction is not only a loss for the speakers and their communities, but also for humanity as a whole. Language is more than just a means of communication; it is also a source of knowledge, creativity, and diversity. When a language dies, we lose:
- Cultural heritage: Language is an integral part of culture; it reflects and shapes the values, beliefs, traditions, and customs of a people. Language also preserves the memories and stories of their ancestors and their lands. When a language dies, we lose a part of our collective cultural heritage 9.
- Linguistic diversity: Language is also an expression of human creativity; it showcases the variety and complexity of human thought and experience. Each language has its own structure, sounds, words, grammar, and meanings that cannot be fully captured by other languages. When a language dies, we lose a part of our linguistic diversity 10.
- Scientific knowledge: Language is also a repository of scientific knowledge; it encodes the observations and insights of generations of speakers about their natural environment and their interactions with it. Each language has its own terms and concepts for describing plants, animals, weather, seasons, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and more. When a language dies, we lose a part of our scientific knowledge 11.
How Can We Save Endangered Languages?
Language extinction is not inevitable; it can be prevented and reversed with adequate support and action from different stakeholders. Some of the ways we can save endangered languages are:
- Documentation and revitalization: One of the most urgent tasks is to document and revitalize endangered languages before they disappear. This involves recording, transcribing, analyzing, and archiving the speech and texts of the speakers, as well as developing dictionaries, grammars, and other resources. It also involves creating and implementing programs and materials to teach and promote the use of the languages among the speakers and learners 12.
- Policy and legislation: Another important task is to develop and implement policies and legislation that protect and promote the rights and interests of the speakers and their languages. This includes recognizing and supporting the official or co-official status of the languages, as well as ensuring their access and representation in education, media, health, justice, administration, and other domains 13.
- Awareness and advocacy: A third crucial task is to raise awareness and advocacy about the value and importance of endangered languages among the speakers themselves, as well as among the general public, the media, the authorities, and the donors. This includes celebrating and showcasing the languages and their cultures, as well as highlighting their contributions and challenges 14.
Language extinction is a serious threat to our global diversity and heritage. It is caused by various factors that undermine the vitality and viability of minority languages. It also has negative consequences for our cultural, linguistic, and scientific knowledge. However, language extinction can be prevented and reversed with concerted efforts from different actors. By documenting, revitalizing, protecting, promoting, celebrating, and supporting endangered languages, we can ensure their survival and flourishing for generations to come.
Here are some frequently asked questions about language extinction:
- How many languages are on the verge of extinction?
According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 1, there are 2,900 languages that are endangered. This means they have fewer than 10,000 speakers, and most of them are not being passed on to younger generations. Of these languages, 577 are critically endangered (fewer than 50 speakers), 639 are severely endangered (fewer than 100 speakers), 955 are definitely endangered (fewer than 1,000 speakers), and 729 are vulnerable (fewer than 10,000 speakers).
- Which regions have the most endangered languages?
The regions with the most endangered languages are Africa (with 619 languages), Asia (with 613 languages), South America (with 448 languages), North America (with 182 languages), Pacific (with 592 languages), Europe (with 238 languages), Australia (with 108 languages), and Antarctica (with no languages) 1.
- What is the most endangered language in the world?
There is no definitive answer to this question, as different sources may have different criteria or data to rank the languages. However, some of the candidates for the most endangered language in the world are:
- Taushiro: A language spoken by only one person in Peru 15.
- Lemerig: A language spoken by only two people in Vanuatu .
- Njerep: A language spoken by only four people in Cameroon .
- Dumi: A language spoken by only six people in Nepal .
- Chamicuro: A language spoken by only eight people in Peru .
- What can I do to help save endangered languages?
There are many ways you can help save endangered languages, depending on your skills, interests, resources, and opportunities. Some of them are:
- Learn an endangered language or teach it to others.
- Support or volunteer for organizations that work on documenting or revitalizing endangered languages.
- Donate or fundraise for projects or initiatives that support endangered languages.
- Research or write about endangered languages or their speakers.
- Share or spread information or awareness about endangered languages or their cultures.
- Advocate or lobby for policies or legislation that protect or promote endangered languages or their rights.
- Why should I care about endangered languages?
You should care about endangered languages because they are part of our global diversity and heritage. They represent the richness and complexity of human creativity and experience. They also contain valuable knowledge and wisdom that can benefit us all. By caring about endangered languages, you are caring about yourself, your fellow humans, and your planet.