Language endangerment is a serious concern to which linguists and language planners have turned their attention in the last several decades. For a variety of reasons, speakers of many smaller, less dominant languages stop using their heritage language and begin using another. In time, a language may become dormant or extinct, existing perhaps only in recordings or written records and transcriptions. Languages which have not been adequately documented disappear altogether.
What does it mean to say a language is endangered?
Many languages are falling out of use, being replaced by others that are more widely used in the region or nation, such as English in the U.S. or Spanish in Mexico. Unless current trends are reversed, these endangered languages will become extinct within the next century. Many other languages are no longer being learned by new generations of children or by new adult speakers; these languages will become extinct when their last speaker dies. In fact, dozens of languages today have only one native speaker still living, and that person’s death will mean the extinction of the language: It will no longer be spoken, or known, by anyone.
Is that what happened to dead languages like Ancient Greek and Latin?
No. These languages are considered dead because they are no longer spoken in the form in which we find them in ancient writings. But they weren’t abruptly replaced by other languages; instead, Ancient Greek slowly evolved into modern Greek, and Latin slowly evolved into modern Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian, and other languages. In the same way, the Middle English of Chaucer’s day is no longer spoken, but it has evolved into Modern English.
Outright genocide is one cause of language extinction. For example, when European invaders exterminated the Tasmanians in the early 19th century, an unknown number of languages died as well. Far more often, however, languages become extinct when a community finds itself under pressure to integrate with a larger or more powerful group. Sometimes people learn outsiders’ language in addition to their own; this has happened in Greenland, a territory of Denmark, where Kalaallisut is learned alongside Danish.
Is language extinction sudden or gradual?
Both. The fate of a language can be changed in a single generation if it is no longer being learned by children. This has been true for some Yupik Eskimo communities in Alaska, where just 20 years ago all children spoke Yupik; today the youngest speakers of Yupik in some of these communities are in their 20s, and children speak English only. Likewise, Scots Gaelic was spoken on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, until the 1940s, but by the 1970s the language was no longer being learned by children. In other cases, languages have declined much more slowly. Iroquoian languages like Onondaga and Mohawk, spoken in upstate New York and adjacent parts of Canada, have been declining for over two centuries; yet they are still spoken today by older adults and, in the case of Mohawk, some younger people as well.
How many languages are endangered?
According to one count, 6,703 separate languages were spoken in the world in 1996. Of these, 1000 were spoken in the Americas, 2011 in Africa, 225 in Europe, 2165 in Asia, and 1320 in the Pacific, including Australia. But most linguists agree that there are well over 5,000 languages in the world. A century from now, however, many of these languages may be extinct. Some linguists believe the number may decrease by half; some say the total could fall to mere hundreds as most of the world’s languages – the majority spoken by a few thousand people or less – give way to languages like English, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Indonesian, Arabic, Swahili, and Hindi. By some estimates, 80% of the world’s languages may vanish within the next century.
What does language extinction mean for a community, and for the rest of us?
When a community loses its language, it often loses a great deal of its cultural identity at the same time. Although language loss may be voluntary or involuntary, it always involves pressure of some kind, and it is often felt as a loss of social identity or as a symbol of defeat. That doesn’t mean that a group’s social identity is always lost when its language is lost; for example, both the Chumash in California and the Manx on the Isle of Man have lost their native languages, but not their identity as Chumash or Manx. But language is a powerful symbol of a group’s identity. Much of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life of a people is experienced through language. For these reasons, among others, it is often very important to the community itself that its language survive.
What can be done to preserve endangered languages?
A community that wants to preserve or revive its language has several options. Perhaps the most dramatic story is that of Modern Hebrew, which was revived as a mother tongue after centuries of being learned and studied only in its ancient written form. Irish has had considerable institutional and political support as the national language of Ireland, despite major inroads by English. In New Zealand, Maori communities established nursery schools staffed by elders and conducted entirely in Maori, called kohanga reo, ‘language nests’. There, and in Alaska, Hawaii and elsewhere, this model is being extended to primary and, in some cases, secondary school. In California, younger adults have become language apprentices to older adult speakers in communities where only a few older speakers are still living. A growing number of conferences, workshops, and publications now offer support for individuals, schools, and communities trying to preserve languages.
Language endangerment facts:
1. More than 50% of the world’s languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 speakers.
2. More than 25% of the world’s languages are spoken by less than 1,000 speakers.
3. There are 357 languages with under 50 speakers.
4. More than 48% of the world’s population are first language speakers of one of the world’s 10 most spoken languages, known as the mega languages: Standard Chinese, English, Spanish, Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Japanese, and German.
5. Every fourteen days a language becomes extinct.
6. Languages are becoming extinct at twice the rate of endangered mammals, and four times the rate of endangered birds.
7. Only 10% of the world’s languages are present on the Internet.
8. 84% of the spoken languages of the world are endemic (i.e. only found in one place).
9. The nations with the largest number of endangered languages are India, the United States, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico.
10. Endangered languages can be found in all regions of the world and in almost every nation.