What You Need to Know about Endangered and Extinct Languages

Kristen Bradley

Languages and Dinosaurs have in Common

What do languages and dinosaurs have in common?

Sadly, what they share in common is extinction. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization if nothing is done, at least half of the 6,000 languages currently spoken will be extinct by the year 2100.

It’s alarming to think every 14 days a language dies and 43% of languages spoken in the world are now endangered.

Languages evolves over time, they expand and contract adapting like living things to an ever-changing environment. But while some languages manage to spread and stand the test of time, others die out.

It is largely the languages of smaller cultures that are among the casualties. Over the centuries hundreds of languages have gone extinct around the world. In Australia, out of 250 indigenous languages, only 40 remain. In some cases the extinction of a language can be traced to the death of the last speaker. Like the Siouan Language of Mandan that ended when the last native speaker, Edwin Bensen of North Dakota passed on in 2016. 

As languages fade from prominence they become categorized in one of 5 primary ways:

  • Vulnerable – Still taught to and spoken by children, but primarily at home.
  • Definitely endangered - Children are no longer taught the language, even at home.
  • Severely endangered - The language is primarily spoken by grandparents and elders, but subsequent parent generations typically do not teach or even speak the language.
  • Critically endangered – The youngest speakers are grandparent generations, and the language is only rarely spoken.
  • Extinct - No living speakers remain.

Hundreds of languages are considered to be critically endangered across the globe including:

Parji, in India
Zenatiya, in Algeria
Tsakonian, in Greece
Itelmen, in Russia

And dozens of Native American languages throughout the US, Canada and Mexico along with indigenous languages in Australia.

While little can be done about languages which have already gone extinct, there is still time to  severely or critically endangered, putting these languages, and all they represent, in jeopardy of complete loss.

Why Do Languages Die?

With approximately 80% of the world speaking one of the major 80 languages, like English, Mandarin or Russian, more culturally obscure languages are continually marginalized by lack of use.

English in particular is becoming more and more prevalent. Business, education and all things digital often cater to understanding and speaking fluent English. To truly master it and become skilled at speaking it requires constant dialogue in it and this pushes native languages to the side. Many parents choose to teach their children English to ensure they have the best opportunities to advance.

Languages often pass into obsolescence as native speakers’ age and common multi-generational usage dwindles. As families adopt more mainstream languages, like English, as the conversational dialect within their homes, native languages may not be passed on to children and fluency among adults diminishes. In some cases speakers may live far apart and are not connected with others speakers.

Immigration is also impacting language. As people move and adapt to survive in new places language is often one of the first things to change.Those who do speak dying languages are forced into being at least bi-lingual as social and economic constructs demand that they are at least bilingual in another more widely spoken language and as the more common language displaces the dwindling language, even in the speaker’s mind, their proficiency decreases.

But the most serious threat to language preservation is a lack of active attempts to preserve the tongue. In many cases written records, classes or other materials that would be requisite to pass on the language are also neglected or, in some cases, discouraged.

Why Should Languages Be Protected?

We find ourselves often reminded of the dwindling plant and animal species and humanitarian efforts to save them. But unlike the giant panda or sea otter, languages rarely find champions to spearhead their salvation. Yet there are numerous languages that need one.

There are over 500 languages in the world that are currently critically endangered, with a substantial portion of minority languages in North America that are nearing extinction.  While some accept the loss of language as a natural part of social evolution, the loss of language is also in a sense a death of heritage and a culture.

Language represents a perspective on life that is contained within cultural idioms and concepts. Take for example the the Toratan word “Matuwuhou” which means to wake up in the morning and find something has changed. There is no single word equivalent for that sensation in English. When a language dies these idiosyncrasies can be lost forever.

Language is also a matter of identity, as we become an increasingly global culture speakers of dying languages struggle to maintain the distinct identity encompassed by their native language.

Finally, Language provides insight into the history of a people, and in a sense the history of our civilization.  As languages die out, our diversity of data sources narrows and we stand to lose pieces of our collective human history and social evolution.  

What Can Be Done?

Many linguists, academics and global-minded organizations are working to support efforts to save endangered languages. The preservation of these languages rely on a concerted effort by both the remaining speakers and outside organizations that are willing to put forth the effort. One such organization is United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) whose offerings include “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger” and online collaborative platform called “World Atlas of Languages” and the Endangered Languages Programme that are intended to raise awareness of dying languages. The Endangered Languages Programme also provides support to communities, governments and experts by providing tools and services for advocacy, training and platforms for the exchange of skills.  Additionally The Endangered Languages Project from the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity offers resources to revitalize and sustain threatened languages as does GoCompare, a British financial services website has launched a project to capture the tone and rhythm of some endangered languages.

Raising awareness is indeed the first step to bringing this risk of lost to the forefront of our social and political conversations, allowing individuals and culturally oriented groups to find the support they need to help preserve an endangered language.

Additionally, even though over half of homepage visits are to websites with English content the internet can be a vital tool for the preservation of languages.  Websites, video and even podcasts can be utilized to help encapsulate, disseminate and extend the life of struggling language by making them accessible and providing resources where the last remaining speakers can connect.

Efforts preserve languages on the brink of extinction may seem like an uphill battle, but it is one worth fighting.  At LinguaLinx, we love languages and this is a cause very near and dear to our hearts. Every day, we work closely with our clients to ensure the integrity of the languages they use to communicate.

That’s a part of why we keep an expansive network with native speakers of hundreds of languages representing cultures in every nation.  As a civilization, our collective history is encapsulated by the rich tapestry of language that make up our world. That is not a time capsule to be buried and reopened when it is too late, but one that is to be celebrated and protected right now.

We’d like to help you keep language alive, contact us for your project!

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