Of the more than 6,700 languages spoken in the world today, half are at risk of disappearing by the end of this century [source: UNESCO]. Every two weeks, the last living speaker of a language dies, taking the language with him [source: Living Tongues]. A small and declining number of speakers, as well as speakers who are older, point to an endangered language: When those speakers die, they leave no one to use the language. Linguists then consider this language dead, although if the tongue has been recorded, they may call it a "sleeping" language -- one that could be revived later.
Languages become extinct for several reasons. Sometimes, people will consider one language more prestigious than another, resulting in the demise of the so-called "lesser" language. Most commonly, a language dies out when the people who speak it shift to a more commonly spoken tongue. Most languages have only a handful of speakers -- linguists estimate that 85 percent of languages have fewer than 100,000 speakers [source: PBS].
Why is it important to keep languages alive? They represent culture. For instance, the Gta language of India has a word meaning "to free a person from a tiger," as well as a word that means "to kill lice by pressing them between your fingernails."
In this article, we'll look at just a few of the more than 3,000 endangered languages and see what some organizations are doing to preserve them for future generations.
10: North American Languages
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that more than 115 languages have disappeared from the United States since the time of European colonization, and 53 of those languages have become extinct since the middle of the 20th century. Much of this decline in Native American languages can be attributed to boarding schools that punished the young students for speaking their native tongues. Endangered languages in the United States include Arapaho, which has fewer than 1,000 native speakers, all living in Wyoming, and the Yuchi language of Oklahoma, which may have as few as five speakers left [sources: Native Languages of the Americas, UNESCO].
In Canada, 88 languages are endangered or already extinct, including Lakota, which is spoken in only one community, and Oneida, an eastern language, now spoken in three communities [source: UNESCO]. More than 140 languages are extinct or endangered in Mexico and Central America, including Ixil, spoken by about 60 people in Guatemala and southern Mexico, and Kickapoo, spoken by about 150 people in Mexico and the United States [source: UNESCO].
9: South American Languages
The status of indigenous languages in Brazil is an outstanding example of the fact that most of the world's languages are spoken by just a fraction of the population. Brazil's indigenous people make up about two-tenths of a percent of the country's population, yet they speak 170 different languages -- every one of them in danger of extinction [source: De Oliveira].
The languages of indigenous people of other South American countries, such as Ache, spoken by a group in Paraguay, and Leco, with only 20 remaining speakers in Bolivia, are also in grave peril. South American governments have done much in recent years to protect the indigenous tongues, including granting native people rights over their land, societies and languages. The governments are also paying special attention to speakers who have moved away from their native territories and now live in urban environments.
8: European Languages
The so-called "Celtic Tiger" economic boom of the late 20th and early 21st centuries may have saved the Irish language from extinction. Called "Irish" in Ireland and "Gaelic" elsewhere, this language was in danger of dying out because many Irish, after centuries of English rule, identified more with England than with their native isle. That changed as Ireland became an economic hot spot. Tourism boomed, and suddenly it became chic to speak the mother tongue. Still, Irish has a long way to go. While schools teach it as a mandatory subject, the language is spoken in few homes.
The Basque language of northern Spain and southern France is also struggling, but it's in far better shape than it was a few decades ago. A strong Basque nationalist movement in Spain has kept the number of speakers steady, but UNESCO considers Basque to be in grave danger in France. While Irish and Basque are success stories, other European languages are not faring so well. The Saami languages, spoken by a few hundred people in Scandinavia, are endangered, and Vilamovian, a language of the Wilamowice village of southern Poland, has only about 70 speakers remaining [source: UNESCO].
7: Indian Tribal Languages
Although Hindi is the official language there, with English as a second language, India's more than one billion people speak thousands of different tribal languages. Many of these languages are endangered because children are required to learn and speak standard Hindi in the classroom. Most Indian students learn English as well. The emphasis on these two languages has led to the demise and endangerment of countless tribal tongues throughout the country.
UNESCO counts 196 Indian languages as in decline or already extinct. The organization lists the Sora languages, with 250,000 speakers, as vulnerable, but considers languages such as Sirmaudi on the verge of extinction. Another endangered tongue, Ruga, of southern India, has only 100 living speakers [source: UNESCO]. Linguists are working to document these languages before they're lost, and the Living Tongues Institute is compiling a digital archive of the Munda languages of central and eastern India. Munda languages are among the world's least known, according to UNESCO.
The loss of the Ainu language on Japan's island of Hokkaido is another example of how a more dominant culture has imposed its language on another. The Ainu, who may be Japan's most ancient people, were, for about the last 300 years, the object of prejudice from the Japanese government. The Japanese language was imposed on them, and now, even though there are about 30,000 Ainu people, the number of speakers of their native language is estimated to be between 15 and 40 [source: Akulov]. Ainu activists and folklorists are working to keep the language alive. In addition to Ainu, UNESCO's language project lists seven other Japanese languages as endangered, including Okinawan and Yaeyama [source: UNESCO].
5: Pacific Island Languages
Hundreds of the languages once common on the Pacific islands are now endangered due to the colonization of those islands by larger nations. In the nation of Papua New Guinea, 196 of the more than 850 recognized languages are considered extinct or endangered by UNESCO. Only 49 people still speak Tench, for instance. Fifteen languages on the Philippines are in danger of becoming extinct. In the United States, only 1,000 people speak the Hawaiian language [source: UNESCO]. The native tongue of Guam and the Northern Marianas, Chamorro, is also considered vulnerable. More than 15 languages of the Solomon Islands are in jeopardy, and several are already extinct.
New Zealand established the Maori Language Commission in 1987 with the goal of promoting the use of Maori as a living language. Maori is now an official language and is allowed in court testimony.
4: Russian and Siberian Languages
Political strife has played a huge role in the endangerment of the Os language of central Siberia. The Soviet Union dropped the Os people from the list of distinct ethnic groups in 1959, and it was not until 1999 that the government reinstated them [source: Living Tongues]. During that time, the people began to lose the Os -- also called Middle Chulym -- language, which is a Turkish speech.
The Living Tongues Institute is conducting a huge project to preserve the Os language before the last speakers die. Working together with local people, they've recorded many hours of speech and also put together an alphabet book for children. UNESCO considers more than 130 languages in the Russian Federation endangered, including many dialects of the Tatars, and the Karelian dialects common along the border with Finland and Poland.
3: African Languages
There are an estimated 1,500 African languages, and 5,000 or fewer people speak about a quarter of them [source: Maho]. Hundreds of African languages are at risk of becoming extinct as our modern world encroaches on the native villages. The Endangered Language Fund is sponsoring a project among the Suba people of Kenya to preserve the Olusuba language that's disappearing. Other endangered languages include Gabon's Kaande, Ghana's Animere and the !Kung language of the Kalahari. But not all endangered languages are native to the people of an area. Namibian Black German, a pidgin form of German developed by the Africans who served German masters in colonial times, is also in danger of becoming extinct.
2: Chinese Languages
Sources vary, but most agree that there are more than 200 spoken languages in the world's most populous country. However, according to UNESCO, more than half of these languages are at risk of extinction within the next 100 years. Most of these languages are in southeastern China, along the border with Myanmar and Thailand. These languages include Chintaw, with fewer than 30 speakers, and Laji, with about 250 [source: UNESCO]. Some northern languages are also endangered, including several Manchurian dialects. The Endangered Language Fund is working on a project to document the grammar of Zijun Samadu, a Tibeto-Surman language.
Language is a highly politicized topic in China. For instance, the languages of Tibet have all but disappeared since the Chinese took over that region and forced the Dalai Lama to flee in the mid-20th century.
1: Amharic Among the Beta Israel
While not officially an endangered language on the UNESCO list, the Amharic tongue may eventually disappear among the Ethiopian Jews who brought it with them from their home country to Israel in the latter part of the 20th century. The Beta Israel lived as an isolated group of Jews in Ethiopia and had no contact with other Jews in modern times until the 1860s.
The group has several different stories of their history. Some say they're descendants of a son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, while others say they're descendants of the Tribe of Dan that left ancient Israel to avoid civil war. Whatever the truth is, the nation of Israel accepted the Beta Israel as Jews in 1975 and began to allow them to immigrate to Israel. The Beta Israel likely started out speaking Cushite or Agaw language, but later adopted Amharic and Tigrinya, which are Semitic languages. But since the immigration to Israel, more and more of them are speaking Hebrew, and some of the Beta Israel fear they will lose their Amharic.
For more articles on language and culture, check out the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
- National Geographic: Disappearing Languages
- National Science Foundation: Endangered Languages
- Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias. "Namibian Black German." (Oct. 17, 2010) http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/2102838
- Akulov, Alexander. "The Contemporary Condition of Ainu Language." Burnali Project. June, 10, 2009. (Oct. 17, 2010) http://polusharie.com/index.php?topic=58766.0
- Bhatia, Ashwini. "Dalai Lama: China Aims to 'Annihilate Buddhism.'" The Huffington Post. March 10, 2010. (Oct. 17, 2010) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/10/dalai-lama-china-aims-to_n_493029.html
- Center for Applied Linguistics. "Directory of Foreign Language Immersion Programs in U.S. Schools."(Oct. 12, 2010) http://www.cal.org/resources/immersion/
- De Oliveira, Gilvan Muller. "Endangered languages in town: The Urbanization Of Indigenous Languages In The Brazilian Amazon." Cultural Survival Quarterly. Summer 2001. (Oct. 17, 2010) http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/brazil/endangered-languages-town-urbanization-indigenous-la
- The Endangered Language Fund. "2010 Language Legacies Project." (Oct. 15, 2010) http://www.endangeredlanguagefund.org/ll_funded_projects.php
- Foundation for Endangered Languages. "Aims." Oct. 13, 2010. (Oct. 14, 2010) http://www.ogmios.org/
- Government of India Ministry of Home Affairs. "Census 2001." (Oct. 17, 2010) http://www.censusindia.gov.in/Census_Data_2001/Census_Data_Online/Language/Statement1.htm
- Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. "Bringing Voices to the Future." (Oct. 12, 2010) http://www.livingtongues.org/
- Lydersen, Kari. "Preserving Languages Is About More Than Words." The Washington Post. March 16, 2009. (Oct. 17, 2010) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/15/AR2009031501857.html
- Maho, Jouni Filip and Bonny Sands. "Small and Endangered Languages of Africa." Goteborgs Universitet. June 18, 2010. (Oct. 17, 2010) http://sprak.gu.se/amnen/afrikanska/forskning/small-and-endangered-languages-of-africa/
- Native Languages of the Americas. "Preserving and promoting American Indian languages." (Oct. 17, 2010) http://www.native-languages.org/
- Perruchon, J.D. and Richard Gottheil. "Falashas." Jewish Encyclopedia. (Oct. 18, 2010) http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=13&letter=F
- PBS. "The Linguists." (Oct. 13, 2010) http://www.pbs.org/thelinguists/
- Shoebottom, Paul. "Language families." Frankfurt International School. (Oct. 18, 2010) http://esl.fis.edu/grammar/langdiff/family.htm
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). "Endangered Languages." (Oct. 12, 2010) http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/cultural-diversity/languages-and-multilingualism/endangered-languages/