Top 10 Things You Need To Know About Endangered Languages

Rising Voices note: This post originally appeared on the Living Tongues blog and republished with permission.

In honor of UNESCO International Mother Language Day (Feb. 21), I would like to bring attention to some key issues related to language loss. As the language preservation and revitalization movement grows around the world, more and more positive media attention has been given to endangered languages, which is a great step for indigenous language activists who want their languages to gain more respect and recognition. However, there are still many ongoing challenges that language activists face. I want to share this list in an effort to help the broader public become aware of the struggles involved in language revitalization, maybe dispel some of the myths surrounding endangered languages, and hopefully help people understand what is at stake when a language is lost. Without further ado, here are the top ten things you need to know about endangered languages:

10. Since the beginning of the 20th century, minority languages have been shifting to dominant languages at an accelerated and unprecedented pace.

It’s happening fast, especially in former settlement colonies. Language shift is happening rapidly, and the process is related to the ongoing impacts of colonization, cultural assimilation, urbanization and globalization. When there is a contraction of local diversity, it leads to cultural erosion, the loss of minority languages, and can even lead to the loss of cultural identity over time.

9. Up to half of the world’s 7105 languages may be at risk of disappearing

Several thousand languages are currently experiencing some level of threat. It is important to note that not only are many individual languages at risk, but entire languages families are also going extinct, which is an incomparable loss for humanity.

In terms of assessing individual language endangerment, you can’t always tell if the language is stable based on the number of speakers alone. Sometimes languages still have very large speaker populations, but if the average age of speaker is over 50, that is an indicator that the language is not being passed down to children. The language is therefore not stable, and the number of fluent speakers will soon dwindle. The language might be lost in only a generation or two. In other cases, the numbers of speakers of a language might be low, but if there are enough speakers of all age groups, then the language is still being transmitted to the youngest members of the community, and the language may still survive for many generations to come.

8. Many endangered languages have never been recorded, and have never been written down.

It’s true. There are many languages out there that have no audio recordings. Having high-quality audio recordings of words and phrases in a language are an essential tool for a community that does not have many fluent speakers left, and wishes to preserve the correct pronunciation of the language after the last speakers have passed on, if that is the eventual end to the process of shift their community is experiencing. The next few decades constitute a crucial period for recording the last speakers of the most critically endangered languages, and for supporting local indigenous language activists who are doing great work reviving relatively less endangered, or threatened languages, in their communities. High-quality recordings are also essential for linguists who wish to analyze the sounds and structure of a language, and assist communities in developing language materials suitable for language transmission.

Furthermore, many cultures have passed on their legacy through oral traditions, and did not rely on writing systems for knowledge transmission. However, the need for a suitable orthography arises when speakers wish their languages to be taught in schools, have a presence in the media, and be recognized by state authorities. In some cases, if the writing system is created too hastily, it might not accurately capture the complex sounds found in that language. The best writing systems are created when fluent speakers work with fluent educators and other specialists, and they all take the time to create a writing system that works well for the community’s needs, and can also be readily used on modern computer interfaces. The creation of good writing systems, and the accompanying technology to accommodate special characters, requires time, diligence, patience, coordination and money to pay people to work on the projects.

7. Language loss is happening in nearly every country in the world.

It’s happening near you. With the exception of monolingual countries such as Uruguay (where many indigenous languages were eradicated), Korea, and a handful of other countries, you can observe languages loss in most countries in the world. If you live in Canada, the United States, or Australia, you may be surprised to find out that language loss is not an exotic phenomenon, but also a local one. Many of the First Nations, Native American, and Aboriginal languages that you have heard of are in danger of disappearing, unless the speakers have the necessary resources and infrastructure in place to keep their languages alive. In the case of Europe, there are also many local minority languages in various regions that are at risk of being lost.

While there are threatened languages in almost every country, it is important to note language shift is not evenly distributed across the world, and one can identify Language Hotspots, which are concentrated regions of the world having the highest level of linguistic diversity, the highest levels of endangerment, and the least-studied languages. The Language Hotspots are places in where language documentation is urgently needed in this current generation.

6. Minority languages are an important part of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage.

In our diverse and multilingual world, languages are a source of cultural wealth. Shaped by the places in which they are rooted, the world’s minority languages encode valuable knowledge systems related to people’s cultural adaptation to the local landscapes. Intimately connected to ecological diversity, these diverse local languages are storehouses of taxonomies and environmental knowledge accumulated over generations. Language extinction can also lead to the disappearance of ancient spiritual traditions. Practices once performed in the language might no longer exist the same way as before, and therefore language maintenance is also necessary to keep spiritual traditions intact.

5. Indigenous language activists and professional language allies often toil in obscurity, for little or no pay.

Indigenous language activists are speakers who spearhead local efforts to conserve their languages. They may be involved in teaching children and adults to speak the language, recording the elders’ knowledge, organizing workshops, cultural events, etc. They are often under-recognized by their community, and depending on the circumstances, they work for little to no pay. Of course, there are also many communities out there where the language activists and educators are well compensated for their efforts, so it really depends on the local situation. Language activism is a full-time job. If the activists are toiling with no wages, they deserve to be compensated.

Professional languages allies are usually researchers, linguists and other media or NGO professionals who use their skills and background to assist activists in conserving their languages. In many cases, these people are also volunteering their time, and not being paid for the time they put into the language projects. Securing funding for language documentation projects is very difficult and can be problematic since it can't be guaranteed from year to year.

4. Language documentation is tedious but fascinating work.

A proper scientific documentation of a language takes many years to accomplish and the best documentation projects involve meaningful collaboration with fluent speakers and other concerned members of the community. The process is always further enhanced when there is participation from multiple trained linguists who each can contribute their expertise.

3. Language revitalization programs are life-long projects.

Doing a language revitalization project is not just a summertime internship project. True revitalization is only possible with long-term commitment from speakers, educators and language activists within the community. Linguists don't save or maintain indigenous languages, and there is no simple path to revitalization for communities.

2. The Internet is not killing minority languages.

There is a popular misconception that the Internet, as a powerful tentacle of globalization, is contributing to the demise of minority languages. However, the opposite is true. The Internet provides an unprecedented opportunity for minority voices to be heard, thanks to citizen media. Furthermore, online language-learning tools not only help create visibility for minority languages on the Web, but also help speakers share their knowledge and maintain networks over large distances.

1. Digital technology will never replace a living community of speakers, but it can help preserve and teach languages, as well as connect speakers.

Innovations in audio and video recording technology help preserve recordings, can serve as a learning aid, and connect people to other speakers of their language who may not live in the same location. Endangered language communities can now create virtual spaces where speakers can go to listen to their language, no matter where they are in the world. Apps, social networks, blogs and language forums are a great tool for enhancing and facilitating communication, but of course cannot and do not replace the speakers themselves.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to share the article!

1 comment

  • Sheila Matheson

    I would like to add to your comments above, that the loss of language can also mean the loss of the qualities of a community/person, which probably could be called ‘spiritual’ qualities. By this I mean that the speakers of many indigenous languages are humble people and, in my estimation, we are becoming more ‘arrogant’ in our daily lives. So the loss of language can also mean the loss of values that are needed in our modern world.

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