There are 195 countries and over 7,000 documented languages currently spoken around the world. If you do the maths, that gives us approximately 35 languages per country, but not every country has 35 official languages. Some countries, such as Papua New Guinea, have over 800 native languages. Others, like Montenegro, have only 5 languages spoken in the country.
All of this to say, language is an expression so localised that, while it can extend across countries, can also be limited to a few square feet in a town or village.
Localised native languages are quickly disappearing to make way for more commonly used languages. Australia National University conducted a study in 2021 on endangered languages. While around half of the world’s 7,000 recognised languages are currently endangered, it is estimated that approximately 1,500 of these endangered languages could no longer be spoken by the end of the century. With every loss of a language, comes the erasure of art, music, literature, traditional knowledge and heritage tied to it. We are not only losing languages. We are losing cultures.
The inexorable march of time, globalisation, and other factors have led to the gradual extinction of many languages. Take a journey with us as we dive into the alarming issue of disappearing languages, their impact on cultures, and what can be done to prevent the deterioration of language.
The Slow Demise of Language Diversity
Language is more than just a medium of communication; it embodies the soul of a culture. For native speakers, their language is not merely a means to convey ideas; it’s their mother tongue, their identity, and their connection to their heritage. The world’s languages encapsulate millennia of history and diverse cultural practices. With over 7,000 languages across the globe, the world is rich with heritage and culture, for now.
Between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages disappeared, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. The threat continues with approximately 40% of languages being endangered, most of which have less than 1,000 native speakers remaining. On the flip side, only 23 languages account for more than half the world’s population, with languages such as English being taken up instead of indigenous languages by younger generations.
Australia alone had over 250 First Nations languages spoken across the continent before colonisation. Today, only 40 native languages are still spoken, with only 12 being learned by children.
Gottscheerish, an Upper German dialect that was the main language in Gottschee, a town in the highlands of modern-day Slovenia, is a 600-year-old language that is now considered critically endangered. Gottschee was annexed by the Italians in 1941, and its residents were sent to resettlement camps. Several years later, many Gottschee immigrants made New York their home. While many in the community spoke Gottscheerish amongst each other, they raised their children with English. Now, 70 years later, their language is on the brink of extinction.
The Kingdom of Hawaiʻi had a Hawaiʻian language literacy rate of more than 90% but after the takeover of the monarchy, speaking Hawaiʻian was discouraged. In 1896, after the US government illegally overthrew the Hawaiʻian government, the Hawaiʻian language was banned from school instruction and replaced by English as the official language to be taught at schools. Native speakers of the Hawaiʻian language severely dwindled as a result. However, the Hawaiʻian Renaissance in the 1970s sparked a renewed interest in the native language and efforts to promote the language re-emerged. Hawaiʻian language immersion schools were created in the mid-1980s to reintroduce the language to the island’s future generations. A 2016 state government report found that more than 18,000 people living in the state speak Hawaiʻian, as well as English, at home, a massive increase from the 2,000 native speakers they had in the 1970s.
In New Zealand, the Māori language was also on its way to extinction in the 1970s, with only 5% of young Māori people speaking the language. However, with efforts by the Māori, backed by the government, more than 25% speak it now.
However, not every language has a happy ending. The Australian National University’s study on endangered languages has identified factors that can help linguists determine which languages are at a higher risk of extinction.
Factors Leading to Language Extinction
While many factors contribute to language loss, the biggest of them being globalisation and migration, linguists have identified several other unexpected factors.
A surprising find is the correlation between road density and dying languages. The more roads there are connecting countries to cities and villages to towns, the higher the risk of languages being endangered. The more roads there are to areas that use a dominant language, the higher the risk of endangerment for a minority language.
Institutionalised schooling also contributes to language loss as many schools do not have curricula that teach indigenous languages. Students are not given the opportunity to learn their mother tongue in schools but instead are being taught more common languages that are used by the larger population, leading to the death of many aboriginal languages.
Climate change has been linked to the demise of many things, and surprisingly, linguistic diversity is one of them. Most of the world’s languages are concentrated in places that are now suffering from climate change, becoming unlivable and forcing populations out. Climate change has led to forced migration for many small linguistic communities in countries such as Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. As these populations leave to resettle elsewhere, their native language is no longer a viable option for communicating with others. They are forced to adopt more common languages to communicate with the community at large.
Language Revitalization Efforts
Linguists, anthropologists, and organisations are working hard to combat language endangerment.
The Endangered Languages Project, managed by British Columbia’s First Peoples’ Cultural Council and the Catalogue of Endangered Languages team at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, in coordination with the Governance Council, has created an online resource for samples and research on endangered languages. Native speakers can also put their local language on their database by submitting samples of their language in either text, audio or video files.
The Enduring Voices Project, supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, has documented some of the world’s most endangered languages with a goal to prevent language extinction. When invited, they assist indigenous communities in revitalising and maintaining their threatened languages. The Enduring Voices Project also supported the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in their effort to build Living Dictionaries. These dictionaries are collaborative multimedia web tools that combine language data with digital audio recordings of speakers and other multimedia. Some of the languages they’ve documented now have only a handful of speakers. In some cases, the last native speaker has passed away, marking the end of an era for, not just a language, but a culture.
Wikitongues is a nonprofit organisation based in New York working to make the first public archive of every language in the world. They’ve already documented 900 languages, 700 in videos and 200 in lexicons. They have a team of volunteers around the world filming native speakers talking in the past, present and future tenses of their mother tongue. The volunteers ask them to speak about varying subjects such as their childhood, hopes and dreams, so they can capture a range of tones and emotions. They have already gathered recordings of a language native to Vanuatu that had never been studied before, as well as Ainu, a rare indigenous language in Japan that bears no relation to any other known language.
In 2005, Swarthmore College created a series of Talking Dictionaries™ that now includes over 200 endangered languages. Anyone can use their tool for free to learn a new language at risk of extinction.
Keeping Our Linguistic Diversity Alive
The world’s linguistic diversity is a treasure trove of unique cultures, histories, and traditions. The disappearance of languages threatens not only our cultural heritage but also the human rights of indigenous peoples. It is our responsibility to ensure that the next generation does not witness the final nail in the coffin of linguistic diversity. With the technology and the tools that we have, language preservation is more attainable. With the efforts of linguists and anthropologists, a record of the world’s languages and the rich tapestry of human history they represent is slowly being built for us and future generations to appreciate, learn from, and ensure that the cultural diversity of our past continues to thrive.