Endangered language

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More than 50% of the world's languages are located in just eight countries (denoted in red on the map): India, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, and Cameroon. In these countries and around them are the areas that are the most linguistically diverse in the world (denoted in blue on the map)
Language shift can be the result of linguicide, in which ethnic group members no longer learn their heritage language as their first language.
The world language hierarchy (adapted from Graddol, 1997)

An endangered language is a language that is at risk of falling out of use as its speakers die out or shift to speaking another language. Language loss occurs when the language has no more native speakers, and becomes a "dead language". If eventually no one speaks the language at all, it becomes an "extinct language". Although languages have always become extinct throughout human history, they are currently disappearing at an accelerated rate due to the processes of globalization and neocolonialism, where the economically powerful languages dominate other languages.[1]

More commonly spoken languages dominate the less commonly spoken languages and therefore, the less commonly spoken languages eventually disappear. The total number of languages in the world is not known. Estimates vary depending on many factors. The general consensus is that there are between 6000[2] and 7000 languages currently spoken, and that between 50–90% of those will have become extinct by the year 2100.[1] The 20 most common languages, spoken by more than 50 million speakers each, are spoken by 50% of the world's population, whereas many of the other languages are spoken by small communities, most of them with fewer than 10,000 speakers.[1]

UNESCO operates with four levels of language endangerment beyond "safe" (not endangered), based on intergenerational transfer: "vulnerable" (not spoken by children outside the home), "definitely endangered" (children not speaking), "severely endangered" (only spoken by the oldest generations), and "critically endangered" (spoken by few members of the oldest generation, often semi-speakers).[2] Using an alternative scheme of classification, linguist Michael E. Krauss defines languages as "safe" if it is considered that children will probably be speaking them in 100 years; "endangered" if children will probably not be speaking them in 100 years (approximately 60–80% of languages fall into this category); and "moribund" if children are not speaking them now.[3]

There is a general consensus that the loss of languages harms the cultural diversity of the world. Many projects are under way aimed at preventing or slowing this loss by revitalizing endangered languages and promoting education and literacy in minority languages. Across the world many countries have enacted specific legislation aimed at protecting and stabilizing the language of indigenous speech communities. A minority of linguists have argued that language loss is a natural process that should not be counteracted, and that recording endangered languages for posterity is sufficient.

The vast majority of speakers of endangered languages consider the loss of their language to be a vital break with their cultural identity and tradition, and many work actively to counteract the impending language loss, often working closely with linguists in revitalization projects.[4] Recognizing that most of the world's endangered languages are unlikely to be revitalized, many linguists are working on documenting the thousands of languages of the world about which little or nothing is known. Their work may prove helpful both for the science of linguistics and in the future for the descendants of the speech communities, should they wish to learn about their ancestral language after it has become extinct.

Number of languages

The total number of contemporary languages in the world is not known, and it is not well defined what constitutes a separate language as opposed to a dialect. Estimates vary depending on the extent and means of the research undertaken, and the definition of a distinct language and the current state of knowledge of remote and isolated language communities. The number of known languages varies over time as some of them become extinct and others are newly discovered.

One of the most active research agencies is SIL International, which maintains a database, Ethnologue, kept up to date by the contributions of linguists globally.[5]

Ethnologue's 2005 count of languages in its database, excluding duplicates in different countries, was 6,912, of which 32.8% (2,269) were in Asia, and 30.3% (2,092) in Africa.[6] This contemporary tally must be regarded as a variable number within a range. Areas with a particularly large number of languages that are nearing extinction include: Eastern Siberia,[citation needed] Central Siberia, Northern Australia, Central America, and the Northwest Pacific Plateau. Other hotspots are Oklahoma and the Southern Cone of South America.

Endangered sign languages

Almost all of the study of language endangerment has been with spoken languages. A UNESCO study of endangered languages does not mention sign languages.[7] However, some sign languages are also endangered, such as Alipur Village Sign Language (AVSL) of India,[8] Adamorobe Sign Language of Ghana, Ban Khor Sign Language of Thailand, and Plains Indian Sign Language.[9][10] Many sign languages are used by small communities; small changes in their environment (such as contact with a larger sign language or dispersal of the deaf community) can lead to the endangerment and loss of their traditional sign language. Methods are being developed to assess the vitality of sign languages.[11]

Defining and measuring endangerment

While there is no definite threshold for identifying a language as endangered, two main criteria are used as guidelines:

  1. The number and age of current speakers.
  2. Whether the youngest generations are acquiring fluency in the language.

Many languages, for example some in Indonesia, have tens of thousands of speakers but are endangered because children are no longer learning them, and speakers are shifting to using the national language ( e.g. Indonesian) in place of local languages. In contrast, a language with only 500 speakers might be considered very much alive if it is the primary language of a community, and is the first (or only) spoken language of all children in that community.

Asserting that "Language diversity is essential to the human heritage," UNESCO's Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages offers this definition of an endangered language: "... when its speakers cease to use it, use it in an increasingly reduced number of communicative domains, and cease to pass it on from one generation to the next. That is, there are no new speakers, adults or children."[12]

UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger categorises 2,473 languages into five levels of endangerment: vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct.[13] More than 200 languages have become extinct around the world over the last three generations.[14]

Many scholars have devised techniques for determining whether languages are endangered. One of the earliest is GIDS (Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale) proposed by Joshua Fishman in 1991.[15] In 2011 an entire issue of Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development devoted to the study of ethnolinguistic vitality, Vol. 32.2, 2011, with several authors presenting their own tools for measuring language vitality. A number of other published works on measuring language vitality have been published, prepared by authors with varying situations and applications in mind.[16][17][18][19]


According to the Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages,[1] there are four main types of causes of language endangerment.

There are those causes that put the populations that speak the languages in physical danger, such as:

  1. Natural disasters, famine, disease. An example of this is the languages spoken by the people of the Andaman Islands, who were seriously affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
  2. War and genocide. Examples of this are the language(s) of the indigenous population of Tasmania who were wiped out by colonists, and many extinct and endangered languages of the Americas where indigenous peoples have been subjected to genocidal violence, or in the cases of the Miskito language in Nicaragua and the Mayan languages of Guatemala have been affected by civil war.

And there are those causes which prevent or discourage speakers from using a language, such as:

  1. Political repression. This has frequently happened when nation-states working to promote a single national culture limit the opportunities for using minority languages in the public sphere, schools, the media, and elsewhere, sometimes even prohibiting them altogether. Sometimes ethnic groups are forcibly resettled, or children may be removed to be schooled away from home, or otherwise have their chances of cultural and linguistic continuity disrupted. This has happened in the case of many Native American and Australian languages, as well as European and Asian minority languages such as Breton or Alsatian in France and Kurdish in Turkey.
  2. Cultural/political/economic marginalization/hegemony. This happens when political and economical power is closely tied to a particular language and culture so that there is a strong incentive for individuals to abandon their language (on behalf of themselves and their children) in favor of another more prestigious one. This frequently happens when indigenous populations, in order to achieve a higher social status, have better chance to get employment, or are forced to it in school, adopt the cultural and linguistic traits of a people who have come to dominate them through colonisation, conquest, or invasion; examples of this kind of endangerment are the Welsh and Scots Language in Great Britain, the Ainu language in Japan, and the Chamorro language in Guam. This is the most common cause of language endangerment.[1]

Sometimes more than one of these causes act at the same time, as poverty, disease and disasters often affect minority groups disproportionally, for example causing the dispersal of speaker populations and decreased survival rates for those who stay behind.

In addition, cultural hegemony may often arise not from domination or conquest but simply from increasing contact with a larger and more influential language community through better communications compared with the relative isolation of past centuries.

Marginalization and endangerment

Dolly Pentreath, last native speaker of the Cornish language, in an engraved portrait published in 1781.
The last three speakers of Magati Ke.

Among the causes of language endangerment cultural, political and economic marginalization accounts for most of the world's language endangerment. Scholars distinguish between several types of marginalization: Economic dominance negatively affects minority languages when poverty leads people to migrate towards the cities or to other countries, thus dispersing the speakers. Cultural dominance occurs when literature and higher education is only accessible in the majority language. Political dominance occurs when education and political activity is carried out exclusively in a majority language.

Historically, in colonies, and elsewhere where speakers of different languages have come into contact, some languages have been considered superior to others: often one language has attained a dominant position in a country. Speakers of endangered languages may themselves come to associate their language with negative values such as poverty, illiteracy and social stigma, causing them to wish to adopt the dominant language which is associated with social and economical progress and modernity.[1]


Language endangerment affects both the languages themselves and the people that speak them.

Effects on communities

As communities lose their language they often also lose parts of their cultural traditions which are tied to that language, such as songs, myths and poetry that are not easily transferred to another language. This may in turn affect their sense of identity, producing a weakened social cohesion as their values and traditions are replaced with new ones. This is sometimes characterized as anomie. Losing a language may also have political consequences as some countries confer different political statuses or privileges on minority ethnic groups, often defining ethnicity in terms of language. That means that communities that lose their language may also lose political legitimacy as a community with special collective rights.

Effects on languages

During language loss — sometimes referred to as obsolescence in the linguistic literature — the language that is being lost generally undergoes changes as speakers make their language more similar to the language that they are shifting to. For example, gradually losing grammatical or phonological complexities that are not found in the dominant language.[20][21]

Language endangerment

Generally the accelerated pace of language endangerment is considered to be a problem by linguists and by the speakers. However, some linguists, such as the late phonetician Peter Ladefoged, have argued that language death is a natural part of the process of human cultural development, and that languages die because communities stop speaking them for their own reasons. Ladefoged argued that linguists should simply document and describe languages scientifically, but not seek to interfere with the processes of language loss.[22] A similar view has been argued at length by linguist Salikoko Mufwene, who sees the cycles of language death and emergence of new languages through creolization as a continuous ongoing process.[23][24] [25]

A majority of linguists do consider that language loss is an ethical problem, as they consider that most communities would prefer to maintain their languages if given a real choice, as well as a scientific problem, because language loss on the scale currently taking place will mean that future linguists will only have access to a fraction of the world's linguistic diversity, and will therefore have a skewed picture of what human language is and can be.[26][27][28][29][30]

Some linguists consider linguistic diversity to be analogous to biological diversity, and compare language endangerment to wildlife endangerment.[31]


Linguists, members of endangered language communities, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and international organizations such as UNESCO and the European Union are actively working to save and stabilize endangered languages.[1] Once a language is determined to be endangered, there are three steps that can be taken in order to stabilize or rescue the language. The first is language documentation, the second is language revitalization and the third is language maintenance.[1]

Language documentation is the documentation in writing and audio-visual recording of grammar, vocabulary, and oral traditions (e.g. stories, songs, religious texts) of endangered languages. It entails producing descriptive grammars, collections of texts and dictionaries of the languages, and it requires the establishment of a secure archive where the material can be stored once it is produced so that it can be accessed by future generations of speakers or scientists.[1]

Language revitalization is the process by which a language community through political, community, and educational means attempts to increase the number of active speakers of the endangered language.[1] This process is also sometimes referred to as language revival or reversing language shift.[1] Vocabulary and courses are available online for a number of endangered languages.[32]

Language maintenance refers to the support given to languages that need for their survival to be protected from outsiders who can ultimately affect the number of speakers of a language.[1]

Another option is "post-vernacular maintenance": the teaching of some words and concepts of the lost language, rather than revival proper.[33]

As of June 2012 the United States has a "J-1 specialist visa, which allows indigenous language experts who do not have academic training to enter the U.S. as experts aiming to share their knowledge and expand their skills."[34]

See also


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 Austin, Peter K; Sallabank, Julia (2011). "Introduction". In Austin, Peter K; Sallabank, Julia (eds.). Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-88215-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Moseley, Christopher, ed. (2010). Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Memory of Peoples (3rd ed.). Paris: UNESCO Publishing. ISBN 978-92-3-104096-2. Retrieved 2015-04-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Krauss, Michael E. (2007). "Keynote – Mass Language Extinction and Documentation: The Race Against Time". In Miyaoka, Osahito; Sakiyama, Osamu; Krauss, Michael E. (eds.). The Vanishing Languages of the Pacific Rim (illustrated ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 3–24. ISBN 019926662X, 9780199266623.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Grinevald, Collette & Michel Bert. 2011. "Speakers and Communities" in Austin, Peter K; Sallabank, Julia, eds. (2011). Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-88215-6. p.50
  5. Grenoble, Lenore A.; Lindsay J. Whaley (1998). "Preface" (PDF). In Lenore A. Grenoble and Lindsay J. Whaley (eds.) (ed.). Endangered languages: Current Issues and Future Prospects (PDF)|format= requires |url= (help). Cambridge University Press. pp. xi–xii. ISBN 0-521-59102-3.CS1 maint: extra text: editors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Statistical Summaries". Ethnologue Web Version. SIL International. 2009. Retrieved 26 April 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Endangered languages in Europe: indexes
  8. ELAR – The Endangered Languages Archive
  9. "Hand Talk: American Indian Sign Language"
  10. Hederpaly, Donna. Tribal "hand talk" considered an endangered language Billings Gazette, August 13, 2010
  11. Bickford, J. Albert, M. Paul Lewis, Gary F. Simons. 2014. Rating the vitality of sign languages. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 36(5):1-15.
  12. UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages (2003). "Language Vitality and Endangerment" (pdf). Retrieved 27 April 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. Paris, UNESCO Publishing. Online version:". UNESCO.org. 2010. Retrieved 17 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Languages on Papua Vanish Without a Whisper". Dawn.com. July 21, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Fishman, Joshua. 1991. Reversing Language Shift. Clevendon: Multilingual Matters.
  16. Dwyer, Arienne M. 2011. Tools and techniques for endangered-language assessment and revitalization
  17. Ehala, Martin. 2009. An Evaluation Matrix for Ethnolinguistic Vitality. In Susanna Pertot, Tom Priestly & Colin Williams (eds.), Rights, promotion and integration issues for minority languages in Europe, 123–137. Houndmills: PalgraveMacmillan.
  18. M. Lynne Landweer. 2011. Methods of Language Endangerment Research: A Perspective from Melanesia. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 212: 153–178.
  19. Lewis, M. Paul & Gary F. Simons. 2010. Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman’s GIDS. Revue Roumaine de linguistique 55(2). 103–120. Online version
  20. Dorian, Nancy C. 1978. The Fate of Morphological Complexity in Language Death: Evidence from East Sutherland Gaelic. Language Vol. 54, No. 3: 590–609.
  21. Schmidt, Annette. 1985. The Fate of Ergativity in Dying Dyirbal. Language Vol. 61, No. 2: 378–396.
  22. Ladefoged, Peter 1992. Another view of endangered languages. Language 68(4): 809–11.
  23. Mufwene, Salikoko (2004). "Language birth and death". Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 201–222.
  24. Mufwene, Salikoko (2001). The ecology of language evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-511-01934-3.
  25. Mufwene, Salikoko (2008). Language Evolution: Contact, Competition and Change. Continuum International Publishing Group.
  26. Hale, Krauss, Watahomigie, Yamamoto, Craig, & Jeanne 1992
  27. Austin & Sallabank 2011
  28. Nettle & Romaine 2000
  29. Skuttnabb-Kangas 2000
  30. Austin 2009
  31. Maffi L, ed. 2001. On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge, and the Environment. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Inst. Press
  32. "Reviews of Language Courses". Lang1234. Retrieved 11 Sep 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (August 26, 2009). "Aboriginal Languages Deserve Revival". The Australian Higher Education. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. "Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian – George Gustav Heye Center, New York". Retrieved 2012-03-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Ahlers, Jocelyn C. (September 2012). "Special issue: gender and endangered languages". Gender and Language. Equinox. 6 (2).CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Abley, Mark (2003). Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. London: Heinemann.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Crystal, David (2000). Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521012713.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Evans, Nicholas (2001). "The Last Speaker is Dead – Long Live the Last Speaker!". In Newman, Paul; Ratliff, Martha (eds.). Linguistic Field Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 250–281.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Hale, Kenneth; Krauss, Michael; Watahomigie, Lucille J.; Yamamoto, Akira Y.; Craig, Colette; Jeanne, LaVerne M. et al. 1992. Endangered Languages. Language, 68 (1), 1–42.
  • Harrison, K. David. 2007. When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. New York and London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-518192-1.
  • McConvell, Patrick; Thieberger, Nicholas (2006). "Keeping Track of Language Endangerment in Australia". In Cunningham, Denis; Ingram, David; Sumbuk, Kenneth (eds.). Language Diversity in the Pacific: Endangerment and Survival. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters. pp. 54–84. ISBN 1853598674.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • McConvell, Patrick and Thieberger, Nicholas. 2001. State of Indigenous Languages in Australia – 2001 (PDF), Australia State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Natural and Cultural Heritage), Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra.
  • Nettle, Daniel and Romaine, Suzanne. 2000. Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove (2000). Linguistic Genocide in Education or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights?. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0-8058-3468-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Zuckermann, Ghil'ad and Walsh, Michael. 2011. 'Stop, Revive, Survive: Lessons from the Hebrew Revival Applicable to the Reclamation, Maintenance and Empowerment of Aboriginal Languages and Cultures', Australian Journal of Linguistics Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 111–127.
  • Austin, Peter K; Sallabank, Julia, eds. (2011). Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-88215-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Fishman, Joshua. 1991. Reversing Language Shift. Clevendon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Ehala, Martin. 2009. An Evaluation Matrix for Ethnolinguistic Vitality. In Susanna Pertot, Tom Priestly & Colin Williams (eds.), Rights, Promotion and Integration Issues for Minority Languages in Europe, 123–137. Houndmills: PalgraveMacmillan.
  • Landweer, M. Lynne. 2011. Methods of Language Endangerment Research: a Perspective from Melanesia. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 212: 153–178.
  • Lewis, M. Paul & Gary F. Simons. 2010. Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman’s GIDS. Revue Roumaine de linguistique 55(2). 103–120. Online version of the article.
  • Hinton, Leanne and Ken Hale (eds.) 2001. The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  • Gippert, Jost; Himmelmann, Nikolaus P. and Mosel, Ulrike (eds.) 2006. Essentials of Language Documentation (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 178). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Fishman, Joshua. 2001a. Can Threatened Languages be Saved? Reversing Language Shift, Revisited: A 21st Century Perspective. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Dorian, Nancy. 1981. Language Death: The Life Cycle of a Scottish Gaelic Dialect. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Campbell, Lyle and Muntzel, Martha C.. 1989. The Structural Consequences of Language Death. In Dorian, Nancy C. (ed.), Investigating Obsolescence: Studies in Language Contraction and Death, 181–96. Cambridge University Press.
  • Boas, Franz. 1911. Introduction. In Boas, Franz (ed.) Handbook of American Indian Languages Part I (Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 40), 1–83. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
  • Austin, Peter K. (ed.). 2009. One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered, and Lost. London: Thames and Hudson and Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • “One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered and Lost,” edited by Peter K. Austin. University of California Press (2008) http://www.economist.com/node/12483451

External links