The Real Reason Endangered Language Initiatives Aren’t Working As Well As They Should Be

Endangered and minority languages around the globe are facing extinction at an increasing rate – currently at around one every fourteen days.

It is believed by many linguists that by the end of the 21st century more than half of the world’s ~7000 languages will die out entirely and be forgotten in the wake of global language titans.

The problem faced right now by this issue isn’t simply that people don’t care; it’s that they don’t even know it’s an issue!

You may think to yourself: “Well it’s not like there’s a whole lot I can do about it right? I mean that sucks but I’m not a Ph.D with a research grant and a mobile recording studio or years of documentation training!”

And that right there is the problem. Endangered language revitalization and documentation efforts are not a public domain crisis such as endangered animals, cancer research or LGTB rights; they’re a relative unknown to the common man.

Sure every couple of years National Geographic does a short blurb about a vanishing culture, written eloquently by yet another Ph.D about research being done by Ph.Ds from The University of Awesome Ph.Ds. They wrap it up beautifully with exquisite photos by Steve McCurry and their readers (many of whom have Ph.Ds) stroke their chins and go “hmm….interesting, now how about those polar bears!”

Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with pursuing your Ph.D and going on to do great work in your field(s), especially if they involve anthropology or linguistics, but the situation isn’t going to get better unless we take the endangered language crisis out of its comfy little dissertation-swaddled nest atop the Ivory Tower of Academia and make it an issue that the Average Joe can get behind.

In order to do this we need to make it a hell of a lot easier to understand and a hell of a lot less boring.


English: Brazilian Yanomami Indian Português: ...Average Joe doesn’t have a Ph.D and he doesn’t care about how cool you think glottal stops are, nor does he know what fricative, alveolar or pharyngeal mean. He isn’t going to read your abstract. He doesn’t know which country the Yanomami come from or what the difference between Germanic and German is.

It’s not that he isn’t smart – he just hasn’t ever had it presented to him in such a way that didn’t put him to sleep or that impressed upon him any sense of personal concern.

So how then, you may ask, are we supposed to make this issue popular, like polar bears and baby seals? It’s hard to make endangered languages adorable, but we can make them fun, interesting and otherwise cool.

We need to stop using language exclusive to scientists and professors. We need to make colorful, beautiful photographs, posters and infographics. We need to spread indigenous music, and make an appeal to popular media, and give these cultures a strong Internet presence.

David K. Harrison’s book “The Last Speakers” does a very good job of creating an easy to read piece with personal touch for to the issues facing the peoples and languages he has studied. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this subject – linguist or otherwise.

Newspapers and most media in the United States are supposed to be written at an 8th grade comprehension level. Sometimes the topics may be more meaningful or complicated than a 13 year old can always understand – but the language itself shouldn’t be over their teenage heads.

Endangered languages and their decline need to be presented this way.

For those of you who are academics – keep doing what you’re doing because you’re doing great! Just share a little more with the rest of us.

Indigenous groups and languages of Mexico, onl...I know there are thousands of people out there who would be thrilled to read about and learn about your work and about indigenous and minority cultures around the world that they’ve never heard of, but they won’t get the chance to hear about if nobody sticks it in front of them in a manner they can digest and relate to.

Heck they might even donate!

Your work cannot be realized in its full potential without the help and support of the masses, and in order to gain that support we need to rethink our approach. Hard scientific research, in all the stuffy glory of academia does not appeal to the general public.

It’s time to change our strategy.

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Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he’s not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

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Brian Powers

Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he's not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

  • Oni

    You may be surprised like I was. I spent an extra year teaching in Taiwan just to save a year’s tuition. But if the graduate program is good enough, they’ll have scholarships and grant money and teaching and research positions out the ass. If you have to take out of a lot of loans for your masters (and especially PhD), it means you’re going to a bad school. Your writing here may eventually make you a good candidate for a good school.

    In NY, I only know of the aforementioned group. There may be a Native American tribe near you doing some language work. You’ll have to do that research yourself.
    The biggest conference is held every 2 years in Hawai’i. Many are in Arizona and NM because of the strong tribal presence there along with a few good departments. Tribal events are everywhere. WiPCE is fantastic, but if you have trouble visiting NYNY, then places like Peru are out.

    And please stop thinking I’m talking only about academics. Again, I’m indicating all groups – and there are many – working on language revitalization and documentation. There’s a lot of useless problematizing in academia and many are very self-aware about it. But there’s a lot of good, honest work being done to assist indigenous peoples that isn’t getting anyone published or tenure. – except very tangentially. Basically people volunteering for free. You aren’t seeing it because you aren’t involved 🙂

  • Though, it should be. Joe can be stupid sometimes.

  • I’ve been looking for professionals that are interested in guest writing, but most of my guest submissions come from companies looking to drive traffic to their site.

    In any case – I do apologize if it sounds as though I’m coming down on academia too hard, that was never my intention and I can probably soften my tone a little bit.

    I’d be very much interested in checking out your paper if possible.

    And I’m not anonymous. I have an about page. I write every article on this site that isn’t started with my brief introduction of the guest author.

    There are thousands of linguists working on this – and without them none of this would work. But without the awareness and interest of the general public it’s difficult to make the necessary changes on the proper scale.

    I think that government legislation is going to be the best way to work against language loss, and in order to get that legislation voters need to be aware of these issues and support candidates and policies that work towards these goals.

    And I still think that in order to rally the general public it is necessary to make a more heartfelt plea. Science, while totally superior in most ways, isn’t always the best at appealing to the average Joe.

  • Oni

    Funny, I wrote and presented an academic paper that had a similar proposal to this… 2 years ago 🙂

    I disagree on some minor points – as someone who’s been in this game for nearly a decade.

    1. Many people are made aware of the problems through various sources. They just don’t care. In fact, many people think it is a net positive to let most languages die out (as long as it isn’t their native one).

    2. While money for research and amount of researchers has increased incredibly over the past 20 years from almost nothing, money for charities is extremely low, and the money and will for marketing to promote the cause even lower.

    It’s very presumptuous of you, anonymous author, to say “It’s time to change our strategy.”
    Everyone has a role to play, and there’s thousands of linguists, community members, tribe leaders, educators, and activists out there approaching this issues in different ways. They aren’t stupid people.
    I promise (disclosure: I’ve worked on it) has had a much more positive effect than a couple blog postings here. And that was made by the same stuffy academics you are criticizing.

    So, choose your words carefully if seeking allies 🙂