11 Things You May Not Know About Endangered Languages

about endangered languages, kazakh yurts
 

Most of us don’t go to bed thinking about endangered languages every single night. Hell, most people don’t think about them at all.

I do, though. I sometimes lie awake thinking about things that could be done to further the efforts being made in endangered language documentation or revitalization. I’ve actually lost sleep thinking about ways to combat these issues and it has led me to the fairly obvious conclusion that yet again, it’s mostly just an issue of outreach and spreading awareness. So that’s what I’m here to try to do.

Most of you, if you’ve been bumming around the language community long enough, are probably already familiar with what endangered languages are, that they’re closely linked to cultures, that it makes people sad to see their language die, etc etc.

But I’ve gone and compiled a list of several things you may not have known about endangered languages.

Let’s get down to it.

  

1. Endangered languages can be linked to crime rate in indigenous reservations and populations

Obviously, they’re not the only cause. They’re probably not even the primary cause.

Still, language loss is a serious identity problem among native peoples clinging to their sense of self and their sense of community. Their language helps to create the glue that ties them to their past and to one another.

There is evidence that the loss of language contributes in no small part to the depression brought on by cultural marginalization.  This effect is something this study refers to as “intergenerational post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Practices of forced assimilation in places like the US, Australia and Canada (as well as many others) have resulted in the historical punishment of the speaking of native languages, the indoctrination of children into Christianity and other such events of forced cultural adoption.

This depression still looms over many reservation populations – often some of the most destitute, poverty stricken areas in the Western World – and can result in a disproportionate rate of drug abuse, alcoholism, violent crime and suicide when compared to non-reservation populations.

It may seem like “someone else’s problem” and it may only be a small part of the bigger picture, but language attrition absolutely plays a role. And if this seems like “someone else’s problem”, keep in mind that these issues sometimes “spill out” into your own populations.

Furthermore, for those of you who aren’t swayed by humanitarian issues; in the US alone somewhere around $20 billion (with a B) tax dollars go to funding various programs every year. While some of this goes to education programs (some of which are language revitalization schools) and other such nice things, an enormous portion of it is allocated towards rehabilitation, drug programs, law enforcement and even prisons.

Again, a lot of these issues have little to do with language loss, but a lack of identity can be linked to socio-cultural depression and it’s not just “their problem”.

2. 50% of Languages may be dead in 100 years…not 90%

You have probably heard this already, but I want to clear the air here and get several sets of numbers and statistics right.

It’s 50%, not 90%. I’m not trying to understate the danger being faced here by endangered languages, but let’s not be too alarmist. 90% of languages may indeed die one day – and probably will. But it won’t be in the next 100 years.

So chill, slightly.

You’ve probably been told that there’re 6500 languages, or 7,000 languages or some other vague yet alarmingly large number. In fact, I’ve used both of these figures myself because nobody really seems to be able to tell exactly how many [living] languages there are.

I’d say that it’s a safer bet to agree that there are between 6,500 and 7,000 languages. It’s pretty damn hard to say with so many uncontacted tribes and with tiny languages dying all the time.

It also depends on who you ask and how they feel about dialects, but that’s an issue for another article.

Suffice it to say that linguists – like most scientists – occasionally love to argue and disagree and throw bricks at each other.

In any case, 3,000+ languages dead in 100 years is a lot. Like a lot a lot. That’s roughly one every 14 days.

3. How do we know it’s 50%?

Big scary numbers are great, but if you can’t back them up, what good are they really?

Well it just so happens that we can back these up.

Linguist Michael Krauss indicates that 50% of languages around the globe are no longer being taught to or popularly adopted by the latest couple of generations generation.

Often the only (fluent) speakers of these languages are aging adults.

While adults are perfectly capable of learning a new language, let’s face it – for the most part they just don’t. It would be too little, too late.

If these trends continue – and they most likely will continue – the lack of interest among the younger generations will be the undoing of 50% of the world’s linguistic spectrum.

4. How many people are going to lose their languages?

According to research at Swarthmore and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, roughly 80% of the world’s entire population of around 7.4 billion, speaks one of just 83 “major” world languages.

The next 3,000 languages are spoken by around 20% of the total global population.

And the the last and largest group of languages – approximately 3586 – are  spoken by a measly 0.2% or about 14.8 million people.

That’s about 10 million people less than the population of Shanghai.

Spread that out over the entire planet and it’s actually pretty tiny.

If you take that number and break it down by the number of languages they speak you get an average of 412 speakers per language.

But that’s just an average. For most of these languages, it’s actually way lower than that. Many only have a handful of speakers left, some only one or two.

So will a significant majority of people lose their languages? Technically they won’t lose their languages. Their languages will simply become lost when they die.

This leaves us with a pretty small pool of people left to work with.

15 million is not lot.

5. Most of these cultures only have an oral tradition

An oral tradition is when a culture lacks a writing system.

Believe it or not, writing is relatively new stuff. Anatomically modern humans have been around for somewhere around 150,000 years. Unfortunately an almost total lack of empirical evidence supporting any such origin is making it kind of hard to tell how long we’ve been speaking, and as with all things – nobody agrees.

But we only started using script that can legitimately be codified as writing fewer than 5,000 years ago. It is currently believed that ancient Sumerian cuneiform is the oldest form of “writing”.

So most of these highly endangered languages are screwed because they totally lack a writing system.

Why does this matter? Without a writing system you obviously can’t write things down! Your history, your knowledge – geographical, biological, historical – is just going to be gone when you are.

Some languages – such as Cherokee in the US and the Vai language in West Africa had their scripts formed within the last two hundred years and quickly applied to the indigenous populations in which the languages were spoken.

This turned out to be massively beneficial for the survival of these two languages. Cherokee, while still endangered today, has held on where many other native American languages have failed. Vai, likewise, remains one of the few indigenous African languages to use a non-Latin script and despite remaining small, is currently sustainable.

Because most languages lack written traditions, they’re more at risk of disappearing and are a priority among those in the language preservation and documentation fields.

Unfortunately, it may be too little, too late for some.

6. Language Preservation or Documentation?

Can we actually preserve a dying language? Yes! Sometimes anyway, but usually with great difficulty.

 

There is a series of steps that a language and its speaker community can take in order to restore their language to a sustainable level that involves the gradual integration of a language into aspects of a community starting with the home and working up to the government and higher education. This process usually takes years and is of course easily broken.

Unfortunately, preservation is going to be really difficult for the vast majority of endangered languages. Most of them have speaker counts so low that there’s virtually no way to save them as full living languages.

The raw truth is that not enough people care. It’s a super tough sell to get a non-member of a small ethnic group to adopt its language for “practical” reasons. You might convince the odd linguistics undergrad social justice warrior, until he gets bored, but otherwise, these moribund languages are pretty much out of luck.

Documentation is the way to go. You can’t always save a language but given some motivation and resources you can write it down. Many such efforts exist to create audio dictionaries, record stories, history and knowledge. Many are developing apps that function as mobile dictionaries for their tongue.

It may be sad to think of a language as being relegated to a few YouTube videos or a linguistics professor’s filing cabinet, but it’s better than nothing.

7. The speakers themselves have to save their language

It’s enormously frustrating to look in on these problems, as a language lover, as an anthropologist or as a linguist and to see these cultures fragmenting, their histories and traditions slipping away. That frustration is compounded by the bleakness of realizing that there’s not an awful lot that most of us outside the native speaker community or who aren’t linguists funded by National Geographic, can actually do about it.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are plenty of revitalization programs going on in various indigenous regions all over the world with moderate success.

Some languages, like Maori, Hawaiian, Cornish or Wompanoag are actually experiencing successful community revivals.

The revitalization of a language is the realm and responsibility of the population to which it is inherent.

As cool as it would be to speak Wompanoag, you’re not going to run out and start learning it. It’s not your heritage that’s at stake and I imagine you’d have a hard time coming up with other reasons to learn this tiny, native New England tongue.

8. There’s actually a group of people who want their language to die

Yeah, you read that correctly.

There are some people in an indigenous tribe in California that actually want their language to die out.

As we’ve already established, we Americans weren’t always the most benevolent of conquerors. For many decades the fledgling US (and Canada for that matter) used systematic assimilation practices with devastating, and often lethal impact on the native populations.

As a result of that aforementioned trauma, the Maidu tribe of Northeastern California has little interest in reviving its ancestral language – the now severely endangered Maidu language.

When asked why this is, the Maidu reply that the wounds of the past are too great for them to wish to be reminded by the rekindling of their language.Didnt know about endangered languages, languages around the globe

 

Maidu has barely enough fluent speakers left to fill a small car. They used to try to teach the language to younger generations but most of the people interested in learning Maidu were not, in fact, of Maidu ancestry – more likely they were just language dorks like us taking advantage of a cool opportunity.

Can’t say I blame them.

In any case, the remaining Maidu people are actively disinterested in continuing their traditions and have rebuked the idea of having linguists record the language.

Personally, I have a problem with this. I have internal questions surrounding the “ownership” of language and while I understand better than many just how closely language and culture and heritage are bound, I feel like this is a bit of a linguistic catastrophe.

I understand and respect the rights of the people whose heritage this language belongs, but I also think that not allowing it to be documented basically robs the world of a piece of its collective heritage.

If they won’t let their language be documented it will be lost – permanently, as it too has no written tradition.

This seems to be the goal though, and unfortunately without their cooperation, linguists may be out of luck on this one.

You can read a lot more about the Maidu people and their language woes here.

9. When does a language become “endangered”

UNESCO has five classifications for language endangerment:

  1. Safe languages are those that are not at any immediate risk. This includes the big, economically powerful languages like the ones you probably speak. However it can also include smaller languages with sustainable speaker counts.
  2. Vulnerable languages are languages that are still fairly widely spoken, but that are not really used outside of the household by the youngest generations. Children may still be taught the language by their family, but you won’t hear them speaking it out and about. Michael Krauss considers vulnerable languages those that will probably no longer be spoken in 100 years.
  3. Definitely endangered languages make up the third classification. These are languages that are no longer spoken at all by the youngest generations and are unlikely to be taught at all in the future. They are thus only spoken by the older adult generations. They may still last a while, but are ultimately doomed without significant efforts to change the trend. These languages, luckily, can still be well documented.
  4. Severely endangered languages are only spoken by the eldest generation and the numbers of speakers is likely dropping at a rapid rate. These are among the cases for the most imminently important documentation projects. Saving a language at this point is highly unlikely.
  5. Critically endangered. It’s pretty much over for these languages. There are only likely to be a handful of native speakers left at this level, all of them elderly. You can read about Boa Sr, the last Bo language speaker who lived alone with her language for 30 years here.

When all the native speakers of a language are gone, the language is considered dead. It is not until all speakers, both native and L2 speakers, are gone that a language is pronounced extinct. Extinct languages can be resurrected in some rare but impressive cases, but return in a somewhat zombified state – different from the way they died and still lacking in truly native speakers.

10. There are endangered sign languages too

Endangered language preservation efforts tend to focus almost entirely on spoken languages. Indeed, most of us don’t really think of sign languages on a daily basis, or realize just how many of these somatic “tongues” we’ve devised.

Gallaudet University estimates that nearly 300 sign languages currently exist in modern use – not all of which are designed solely for the deaf. Many of these sign languages are relegated only to a single community and may have only a few dozen speakers.

Just like spoken languages, sign languages die out for very much the same reasons. They tend to be supplanted by larger, national sign languages, which are then replaced by globally powerful languages. And so on and so forth.

Sign languages can pose even more issues for documentation or revitalization efforts than their spoken counterparts. They tend to have a much lower speaker count than their spoken counterparts and are significantly harder to record.

New methods for documenting or revitalizing sign languages are currently being devised to combat rising language attrition rates.

Plains Indian Sign Language is one of the most endangered sign languages, spoken by (maybe) 75 people today. Check out the video for a sample from the 1930s.

11. Language sustainability isn’t just about size

Language endangerment is relative to its speaker population, not just directly to its overall speaker count.

Many (if not most) languages are relegated to relatively small population of speakers – often a village or a small region containing a few villages. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every single one of them is in danger of dying out.

While these are certainly the most vulnerable languages, their endangerment is based much more on whether they are sustainable or not.

A small language with a vibrant speaker population –  a couple thousand or even a few hundred speakers – can be considered “safe” if it maintains a strong presence in its community, its children are still learning and speaking the language as their primary tongue,and without significant competition from much “larger” world languages.

There are many such languages in the deeper parts of places like the Amazon rain forest or Papua New Guinea – the country with the most language diversity on Earth. PNG is believed to have over 700 languages – many of which are only spoken by individual tribes with limited contact with the outside world.

While many Papuan languages are endangered – many, however small, can still be considered “safe” due to such factors as geographic isolation.

Conclusion

Endangered languages are a worldwide epidemic that continues to be brought on by the onslaught of globalization, neo-colonialism and the sands of time.

There are, however, a few things that we can do to play a small role in the revitalization or documentation of endangered languages the world over.

The first and foremost of these is to educate ourselves and one another. Just get the word out. Tell your friends, your family, your dog and anyone else who is willing to listen. If you run a language  blog or social pages, let people know.

By staying cognizant of the issues surrounding language attrition we may be able to make a difference collectively through education, legislation or just straight up donations to the numerous endangered language funds including:

And you can keep yourself informed and read a hell of a lot more than I can write about languages all over the world here:

One of my favorite reads on endangered languages is The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison. I’ve actually written a book review of his very informative yet easy-to-read piece here. You can also find it on Amazon for both Kindle and hard cover. 

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  • Thanks Brian for this well written and informative article. At the Polyglot Berlin Gathering in 2016, we started the day with Audrius Sabūnas from Lithuania who spoke about climate change and endangered languages. I wrote about Audrius’ talk a couple of months ago in Spanish http://yozzi.com/cambia-el-clima-perdemos-idiomas/ and today I’ve updated the post to link to your article to add to the resources and information about this topic.

    • Thanks a lot for the link! I appreciate it.

      I wasn’t able to make the polyglot gathering this year. We’ll see about next. I’m only about an hour or two away by train, but things didn’t fall together this year.