Endangered languages

Watch your tongue: There are over 850 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea alone.

Over 2,000 languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers. More than half of the world’s languages are in danger of dying out by the end of the century. What are they and how can we save them?

  • What is an endangered language?

    Just like an endangered animal, an endangered language is at risk of dying out.

    The most critically endangered languages are only spoken occasionally by some grandparents and older people. This means that when they die, the language will die with them.

    Across the world, 94% of the population speaks 6% of all languages in existence. Out of more than 7,000 languages, half the world speaks only 24 of them.

  • How many endangered languages are there?

    Around 2,000 languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers.

    Experts say that one language dies out every two weeks. This means that 50% to 90% of the world’s languages could be extinct by the year 2100.

  • What is the world’s most endangered language?

    There are 64 languages that have only one or two speakers left.

    In 2016, the last female speaker of Resígaro (an Amazonian language) was murdered. Her brother is now its last remaining speaker. The siblings were taught the dying language by their mother, a descendant of the the Resígaro tribe.

  • What are some of the strangest languages?

    Basque, which is spoken by 660,000 people in Spain and France, is totally unrelated to any other language in the world.

    Some African languages use clicking sounds. In Botswana, speakers of the Taa language develop a lump on their throat from speaking the five basic clicks.

    Other languages have unusual ways of seeing the world. Speakers of the South American Aymara language think of the past as in front of them and the future as behind them.

  • Why are languages dying out?

    While different tribes once spoke lots of languages, modern societies found it easier when everyone understood each other. When empires like Britain colonised other countries, they took their languages with them.

    Now, technology is also helping to spread the world’s major languages, particularly English, the most common language online. Currently, there are many millions more people who speak English as a second language than native English speakers.

  • Can endangered languages be saved?

    There are lots of efforts to revive dead or dying languages. Sometimes, these attempts are successful. After going extinct in the 1880s, Cornish was taken off the UN’s list of endangered languages in 2010. Some speakers are now raising their children to speak Cornish as a first language.

You Decide

  1. Should we try to save rare languages?

Activities

  1. With a partner, choose a language that neither of you already speak. Learn how to count to 10 in that language. Then, show off your new skill to the rest of the class!

Word Watch

Critically
Very seriously.
Extinct
Having no living members.
Amazonian
Found in the Amazon rainforest in South America.
Descendant
A person who is related to an earlier generation. For example, you are a descendant of your parents and grandparents.
Colonised
Invaded and ruled. The British Empire was once the largest in the world. At its peak, it included almost a quarter of the world’s population.
Native
Related to where you were born. In this case, people who were raised speaking English as their first language.

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