Map Shows Thousands of Dead or Dying Languages

April 10, 2009 09:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
The latest UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger shows more than 200 languages are extinct; researchers work to reverse the trend.

Manx, Eyak and Other Languages Extinct; Endangerment of Thousands More

The United States is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, but it also has one of the largest numbers of endangered languages. India, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico are all countries with similar linguistic situations as the United States—lots of spoken tongues, but also many endangered or extinct languages. Of the some 6000 languages spoken worldwide, it is thought that nearly half of them are endangered.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization releases an Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing every few years. This year marks the first time that the atlas has been turned into an interactive online map of endangered languages, allowing for contributions from users.

In this edition, there are nearly 200 languages that have ten or fewer speakers and almost the same number have only 10 to 50 speakers. Of the hundreds of languages that are already extinct, some of the most recent include Manx, Aasax from Tanzania,  Ubykh from Turkey, and in 2008 a native language of Alaska, Eyak, was lost with the death of its last speaker. 

The first edition of the atlas was released in 1996. According to UNESCO, the atlas is “intended to raise awareness about language endangerment and the need to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity among policy-makers, speaker communities and the general public.” UNESCO also says the atlas can be used to “monitor the status of endangered languages and the trends in linguistic diversity at the global level.”

The atlas ranks languages by five degrees of endangerment; from unsafe (children may speak it, but usually only at home), to definitely endangered (the language is not taught to children as a first language in the home), to severely endangered (grandparents speak it, parents understand it, children do not), to critically endangered (only grandparents speak and understand it), to extinct (no living speakers). 

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Background: Living Tongues Institute and the battle to save dying languages

In some areas, minority languages have been given a revival of sorts. Schools are actively teaching the language to try and stop the loss of it. In Ireland, Irish language schools, or gaelscoileanna, have becoming increasingly popular, aiming to help preserve Irish language and culture.

For those languages with far fewer living speakers than with the Irish language, additional support to preserve language and culture may be necessary. The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Oregon aims to help document and preserve native languages around the globe. The group seeks to help cultures preserve their languages and can implement small training programs within the communities to continue the passage of language from one generation to the next. Living Tongues has identified “language hotspots” around the globe, areas where languages are particularly in danger of dying out.

Two of the men from Living Tongues, David Harrison and Greg Anderson, were recently featured in a documentary called ‘The Linguists’ which follows them through their trips around the globe as they encounter the last speakers of some of the world’s most endangered languages. Anderson explained to NPR that one reason languages begin to die out is that people think they can only speak a more global language like Spanish or English to succeed. Anderson called it a “false choice,” and said people are realizing that being bilingual has its advantages. 

“There are these pressures as we get increasingly urbanized, but people are successfully pushing back,” Anderson told NPR.

Opinion: Loss of language equals ethnocide

In a 2007 talk about cultures at the far edges of the world, National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis explained that because nearly half of the languages spoken on earth are no longer taught to children, they are essentially dead. He cited a statistic that nearly every two weeks, a language dies off completely and went on to describe how language shapes the way we think. 
Losing a language is not just losing a way of speaking, David said, it is losing an entire set of knowledge, a complete history of a people. To demonstrate how language shapes our understanding of the world, he pointed to a tribe in the Amazon that does not distinguish between the color blue and green, or the necessity of creating a whole set of words to describe the differences among plants that Western scientists would not be able to distinguish. Wade called loss of language one part of the ethnocide of a people, losing languages eliminates ways of thinking and entire realities and understandings of how the world works.

Context: English thrives, evolves and pushes out other languages

As many minority languages struggle, English has been flourishing over the past fifty years or so. English has been pushing out the French language as the international language of business and politics. It is now widely used in the UN, the European Union and is a common language among diplomats. In U.S. colleges, the study of French and German has not seen the same amount of growth as the study of other secondary languages such as Chinese or Arabic, representing a shift in the dominance of languages.

Even the current French president has acknowledged the need for French children to learn English in order to succeed in today’s global market, and the government has encouraged English being taught in schools. 

The English language, unlike other languages such as French and Spanish, does not have a government regulatory body in charge of the preservation of language, and so it is constantly changing. Some academics have recently called for a change in allowed spellings for some commonly misspelled English words in order to make the language easier to learn and use. It is thought that the English language will reach one million words in the next year.

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