Frequent Asked Questions on Endangered Languages

12/02/2012 10:23

What are the causes of language endangerment and disappearance?


How do you define an endangered language?


Why should we care?


Do new languages appear today?


Which are the regions with the most endangered languages?


How many languages have already disappeared?


Who made the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger?


What does it mean to say that a language is extinct?


What can be done to save a language from disappearing?


What does UNESCO do to prevent the endangerment and disappearance of languages?

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A language disappears when its speakers disappear or when they shift to speaking another language – most often, a larger language used by a more powerful group. Languages are threatened by external forces such as military, economic, religious, cultural or educational subjugation, or by internal forces such as a community’s negative attitude towards its own language. Today, increased migration and rapid urbanization often bring along the loss of traditional ways of life and a strong pressure to speak a dominant language that is – or is perceived to be – necessary for full civic participation and economic advancement.

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A language is endangered when its speakers cease to use it, use it in fewer and fewer domains, use fewer of its registers and speaking styles, and/or stop passing it on to the next generation. No single factor determines whether a language is endangered, but UNESCO experts have identified nine that should be considered together:

  • Intergenerational language transmission
  • Absolute number of speakers
  • Proportion of speakers within the total population
  • Shifts in domains of language use
  • Response to new domains and media
  • Availability of materials for language education and literacy
  • Governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies including official status and use
  • Community members’ attitudes toward their own language
  • Amount and quality of documentation

For more information on how these nine factors can be considered, see the report, Language Vitality, of the UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages (2003).

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Every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value systems, philosophy and particular cultural features. The extinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others.

For speaker communities, languages are the creations and the vectors of tradition. They support cultural identity and are an essential part of a community’s heritage. An Evenki poet, Alitet Nemtushkin, summarizes the feelings and the apprehension of speakers of endangered languages:

  • If I forget my native speech,
    And the songs that my people sing
    What use are my eyes and ears?
    What use is my mouth?
  • If I forget the smell of the earth
    And do not serve it well
    What use are my hands?
    Why am I living in the world?
  • How can I believe the foolish idea
    That my language is weak and poor
    If my mother’s last words
    Were in Evenki?
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In the normal course of human history, languages disappear and new ones appear, and this remains true today. New languages may be the result of a conscious effort (Esperanto) or other processes such as pidginization (development of a simplified, mixed language for communication among two or more groups) or creolization (development of a mixed language that becomes the mother language of a group). New languages also arise as dialects of an existing language become more and more different from each other over time, and speakers of one dialect no longer fully understand speakers of another.

Many languages may exist but not be known yet by linguists or other researchers. New languages may be discovered by a diligent researcher or, for example, as a consequence of building a road through a rainforest and coming across a small indigenous group unknown to the outside world.

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Regions with the greatest linguistic diversity are also the ones with the most endangered languages (for instance, Melanesia, Sub-Saharan Africa or South America). But endangered languages can be found in every region and in almost every country in the world.

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It is impossible to estimate the total number of languages that have disappeared over human history. Linguists have calculated the numbers of extinct languages for certain regions, such as, for instance, Europe and Asia Minor (75 languages) or the United States (115 languages lost in the last five centuries, of some 280 spoken at the time of Columbus). Some examples of recently extinct languages are:

  • Akkala Saami (Russian Federation) - the last speaker died in 2003
  • Aasax (Tanzania) – 1976
  • Ubyh (Turkey) – 1992, with the death of Tefvic Esenc
  • Eyak (United States, Alaska) – 2008, with the death of Marie Smith Jones
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This Atlas is the result of an international collaboration of more than thirty linguists from around the world (see Contributors), some of whom had already been involved in the previous two editions. The editor-in-chief is Christopher Moseley, whose works include the Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages (London: Routledge 2007) and the Atlas of the World’s Languages (London: Routledge 1994 and 2007). The on-line edition will be enriched by contributions from many other researchers, and from speakers of endangered languages. The cartographer of the present printed edition is Alexandre Nicolas.

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The linguists who edited the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger agreed that it should include not only languages that are endangered, but also those that have become extinct in the last half century or so. When we say that a language is extinct, we mean that it is no longer the first tongue that infants learn in their homes, and that the last speaker who did learn the language in that way has passed on within the last five decades. It may be possible to revive extinct languages, provided that there is adequate documentation and a strong motivation within the ethnic community. In many communities, revitalization efforts begin when there are still elders alive who learned as infants, even if there is often a gap of several generations of non-speakers in between. There are more and more examples of languages being brought back to life, even if many linguists still wish to distinguish such revived languages from those that have been spoken continuously, without interruption.

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The most important thing that can be done to keep a language from disappearing is to create favourable conditions for its speakers to speak the language and teach it to their children. This often requires national policies that recognize and protect minority languages, education systems that promote mother-tongue instruction, and creative collaboration between community members and linguists to develop a writing system and introduce formal instruction in the language. Since the most crucial factor is the attitude of the speaker community toward its own language, it is essential to create a social and political environment that encourages multilingualism and respect for minority languages so that speaking such a language is an asset rather than a liability. Some languages now have so few speakers that they cannot be maintained, but linguists can, if the community so wishes, record as much of the language as possible so that it does not disappear without a trace.

See the Selected Bibliography for descriptions of specific projects and methodological approaches.

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UNESCO acts on many fronts to safeguard endangered languages and prevent their disappearance:

  • In education, UNESCO supports policies promoting multilingualism and especially mother tongue literacy; it supports the language component of indigenous education; and raises awareness of the importance of language preservation in education.
  • In culture, UNESCO collects data on endangered and indigenous languages, develops standardized tools and methodologies, and builds capacities of governments and civil society (academic institutions and speaker communities).
  • In communication and information, UNESCO supports the use of local languages in the media and promotes multilingualism in cyberspace.
  • In science, UNESCO assists programmes to strengthen the role of local languages in the transmission of local and indigenous knowledge.