by Elizabeth Huff

Did you know that despite only having around 200 countries, there is somewhere around six or seven thousand languages on Earth today? Unfortunately about half of them have fewer than three thousand speakers and several will disappear completely within the next few decades. Yes, even with today’s technology and scientific advancements there are many languages that have not been written down or recorded. The people who speak them rely solely on tradition to pass down their linguistic culture. With the rise in popularity of several main languages like English, many less widely spoken languages are not being learned by younger generations, and so the languages are close to dying out. This has many implications including the loss of what may be an important part of a society’s culture and heritage. Knowing where you come from is important. It’s what keeps you grounded. Language is a big part of that. The stories and legends, historic viewpoints, and connections to the past may all be lost with the loss of language. Imagine knowing a language hundreds or even thousands of years old, and having no one to speak it with.

With so many languages that exist on Earth and so many in danger of being lost, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that nearly every country has some languages or variations that are in danger of becoming extinct. The worst part is that this is, for the most part, preventable. What languages are in danger? How can you help? In this series of articles I will try to answer these questions for you.

First, if it’s not obvious from what’s written above, an endangered language is one that is at risk of the speakers dying out. While the number of speakers is significant, what is usually considered more important is how many children and young adults speak the language. These numbers can point to whether the language is being taught to the next generation. Many times a language dies out simply because no children can speak the language and the older speakers die. When there are no more native speakers, a language is dead. When there are no more speakers at all, it is extinct.

There are several levels of endangerment. This is taken from wikipedia: UNESCO operates with five levels of language endangerment: “safe”, “vulnerable” (not spoken by children outside the home), “definitely endangered” (children not speaking), “severely endangered” (only spoken by the oldest generations), “critically endangered” (spoken by few members of the oldest generation, often semi-speakers). The languages I will focus on are severely and critically endangered with less than 100 speakers.

So what can you do to help? Below are links to several websites where you can get more information and find out what you can do to stop, or at least slow down, the disappearance of languages. Links for specific languages will be included with the posts.

United Nations

Endangered Languages Project

Foundation For Endangered Languages

Endangered Languages Archive