Why have some languages become so endangered, what is it that threatens them and most importantly what can be done to save them?

As mentioned in our last blog, a world with only one language is becoming an ever-increasing prospect for the future. Publicity surrounding International Mother Language Day last week has brought to attention the serious threat facing languages as it is estimated that over half the 6,000 plus languages in the world could be extinct by the end of the century.

43% of languages spoken in the world are endangered

As people shift away from traditional ways of life, this encourages a desire to acquire languages which are shared and spoken by more people. As communities become less isolated, people change allegiance towards dominate languages. Learning them in order to take advantage of the benefits they make available, for example in trade or education.

Languages are therefore threatened by communities themselves and their own decision to stop speaking them. If children are not taught the language then the deaths of remaining native speakers become detrimental to a languages existence.

What also threatens languages is force, restrictions on language though authority or military pressure can ultimately bring about extinction. If people are not allowed to use their own language and are punished or vilified for it, then continued use of the language will not be encouraged and passed onto future generations.

UNESCO have developed different categories of language endangerment to classify how threatened they are and also an interactive atlas of the world’s languages in danger, the atlas shows that even in the UK we have two critically endangered languages – Cornish and Manx.

Degrees of endangerment:

Safe – language is spoken by all generations

Vulnerable – most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g. home)

Definitely endangered – children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home

Severely endangered – language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves

Critically endangered – the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently

Extinct – there are no speakers left

UNESCO’s overview of vitality of the world’s languages:

UNESCO's Overview of Vitality of the World’s Languages

As the world becomes a smaller place, the consequence of globalisation is that we are losing unique languages. But what can be done? Essentially, they can be protected by creating an environment that encourages multilingualism and respect for minority language – producing positive conditions for the language to be spoken and passed on to future generations.