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10 Languages on the Verge of Extinction

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by: Martha Barksdale
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While Brazil's indigenous people make up only about two-tenths of a percent of the country's population, they speak 170 different languages, all of which are in danger of becoming extinct.
Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images
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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.

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