Endangered languages

Everyone knows about the fragile state of our environment, there are constant reports in the media about the latest species to become at risk of extinction. A sad but very real situation. Yet how many people are aware that it is not just plants and animals that are in danger, but also human languages? Hundreds of languages around the world, some of which are several thousands of years old, are dieing out at an alarming rate. On average, in some regions, one language becomes extinct every fortnight. The continued existence of the most vulnerable languages is particularly tenuous, because they each only have a handful of speakers. Several organisations, including, among others, UNESCO, The Endangered Language Fund and Ethnologue, have taken it upon themselves to study the phenomenon of languages losing speakers and to try to reverse this trend in the most extreme cases. Enduring Voices, a similar project run by the National Geographic, has highlighted five areas of the globe where the problem of language loss is even greater than elsewhere: the North American northern Pacific coast, northern Australia, central and eastern Siberia and central parts of south America.

Linguists have pointed out that when a language is no longer spoken, it is not only valuable linguistic information about its structure and vocabulary that is irrecoverable. As Gregory Anderson, a linguist at the of the University of Oregon and director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, has pointed out, each time a language becomes extinct, humanity loses an enormous store of knowledge of the region in which it was spoken, ecosystems and cultural traditions which developed over the course of the thousands of years of the language’s existence.

Of course, languages have always developed and changed, with new ones arising from the ashes of their predecessors. However, the current situation is a particular cause for concern. The reasons for this become obvious if we take a look at statistics published on the status of languages around the world today. The researchers from Enduring Voice have discovered that more than 500 languages each currently have fewer than ten speakers. In the majority of cases, this means that the language is doomed to extinction within a short period of time.

Furthermore, although one might have thought that an increase in global population over the coming century might have a positive effect for the preservation of less well known languages, this will most probably not be the case. The expected population explosion will most likely be accompanied by increased global reliance on a small number of key languages, such as Chinese, Spanish and English. Professor Wunderlich, of the Centre for General Linguistics (ZAS) in Berlin, has estimated that in one hundred year’s time, the global population will have doubled to 12 billion people, yet the number of languages spoken will have declined by up to 90 percent, leaving only between 600 and 2,000 of the 6,000 to 7,000 living languages spoken today. Given the difficulty of predicting exact developments over such a long period of time, not all experts agree with this prediction, yet even far more conservative estimates suggest that half of all languages in existence today might survive the next century. Even if we cannot agree on precise figures, it is undisputed that there will be a dramatic reduction in global linguistic variety during the lifetimes of the next few generations.

Furthermore, it is often precisely the less commonly spoken languages which are of greatest importance for linguists studying the origins of human language. Anderson illustrates this with the example of the two dialects of Haida, a language spoken on the Queen Charlotte Islands in Alaska and which has only 50 elderly speakers remaining. Apart from its intrinsic value as an integral part of an entire culture, it is important for linguists because it apparently has no linguistic relatives – it seems to be a so-called ‘language isolate’. Such languages can be used to test or challenge theories about possible common origins of all languages. The disappearance of Haida would therefore mean the loss of an entire language family.

The difficulties facing smaller languages can be seen from the example of the Pacific Northwest, an international geographic region suffering particularly badly from language loss and which covers the Canadian province of British Columbia as well as the US states of Alaska Washington, Oregon. Over 60 percent of all native Canadian languages come from British Columbia. 13 of the 36 still existent languages native to the province are spoken by fewer than 50 people, with no speakers younger than 15 years old. However many speakers of a language there may be, if none of them are children or young adults who could speak it with their own children, it is statistically highly unlikely that the language will survive more than a generation or two. As a result the vast majority of the native languages of British Columbia are highly endangered and relatively recently three of them were officially classified as extinct.

A combination of factors is responsible for the decline of so many languages around the world, but experts are generally agreed that one of the most important reasons is the impact of colonialism. The vast majority of endangered languages are spoken in areas which have suffered colonial invasions and where the natives were forced to learn the language of the invaders. Kevin Annet, author of the book: ‘Hidden From History: The Canadian Holocaust’ has pointed out that before the colonial invasions, dialects were used to mark territorial boundaries. Preventing people from speaking in their own dialect or language was a tactic used in the colonial conquest, as it destroyed the sense of a local territory which should be defended.

Yet this somewhat depressing set of figures and probabilities is not the end of the story. Unlike the languages from British Columbia mentioned above, a few native Canadian languages, such as Cree, Inuktitut, Ojibwa, Slavey and Dogrib, are, comparatively speaking, thriving. What is more, with a huge investment of time and resources it is possible if the speakers are willing, to pull endangered languages back from the brink and preserve them for generations to come, not just fossilized in grammar books but as living, spoken languages. Many ethnic groups all over the globe are trying, often with help from academic linguists and linguistic field workers, to document and preserve their language.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the high risk of many languages from British Columbia dieing out, the organisation First Voices in British Columbia offers a variety of internet services giving native Canadians the opportunity to learn about, preserve, revive and pass on their culture. At present it is supporting the activities of 26 different ethnic groups. Unfortunately the majority of the fluent speakers are in most cases relatively old and so linguists have recently realised the importance of the particularly challenging and time-consuming process of writing down and systematising these languages to preserve the knowledge currently available for future generations. The difficulty inherent in this process is that in most cases the languages never developed their own natural written tradition. This means that none of them have their own alphabet, yet using the standard orthography of a genetically unrelated or only distantly related language is unsatisfactory, because such alphabets are often ill equipped to represent the sounds and words used. The best solution found so far is for a separate orthography to be developed for each language, which is of course a challenging task for the linguists involved in the project.

At the same time, parallel language preservation projects have been initiated at several local universities: the University of British Columbia has to date already offered courses in several languages native to the region and the University of Alaska Southeast offers various Haida language courses. These courses aim to teach young people from the respective ethic groups both the language of their ancestors and the culture and traditions associated with it. These courses, while still only a relatively small-scale project, have been shown to have some success, as can be seen from the example of Johnny from Kuper island, off the Canadian Pacific coast. Although he spoke Hul'q'umi'num at home as a child, a strict programme of linguistic assimilation in his school resulted in him losing the ability to speak it. Today, at the age of 61, Johnny is relearning his native language together with his children. One of Johnny’s nephews, who can speak Hul'q'umi'num fluently, was given private tuition by one of the village elders. Nowadays he has the privilege of being permitted to recite in his native language at certain village ceremonies.

Back to the start

However much effort individuals put into learning and documenting their language, it will, unfortunately, probably not be enough to revive these languages fully. Revitalising a language spoken by only a few elderly members of a tribe requires an intensive language programme for children. There is only one place in the world where such a programme is currently being successfully carried out: the Chief Atahm School in the Shuswap community on the shores of Adams Lake in British Columbia. Leading linguists have declared this project an outstanding success, as there are now five year groups of young people who speak fluent Shuswap and use the language outside the classroom of their own free will. However, as long as it is only carried out on a relatively small scale, such a programme, however successful, is not sufficient to guarantee the survival of Shuswap. If the pupils then move away from the area and can no longer converse with each other on a regular basis and raise Shuswap-speaking families, the programme may well have only prolonged the death of the language. What is really needed is state support. Welsh was once an endangered language, but survived because it was spoken by many people and was promoted by the state. State support has also been essential for the survival of dialects on the islands of Hawaii as well as of Maori dialects in New Zealand. This intervention ensured that there was never a period when these dialects were not spoken by children. Only when there is sufficient public awareness of the tragedy of endangered languages and enough political will to invest in schemes to prevent their loss will it be possible to save Shuswap and many other languages and cultures like it.


Based on:

Dieter Wunderlich: „Was verlieren wir, wenn Sprachen sterben“

Joan Delaney: Epoch Times Victoria, Kanada „Sprachen Sterben“

Heinz-Dieter Dey: „Das Sprachensterben: Stehen wir vor dem kulturellen Selbstmord?“