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definition - Endangered_language

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Endangered language


An endangered language is a language that is at risk of falling out of use. If it loses all its native speakers, it becomes a "dead language". If eventually no one speaks the language at all, it becomes an "extinct language". The danger of extinction to any given language and the rapid increase in language extinction can be seen largely as a result of globalization and neocolonialism, where the economically powerful languages dominate other languages.[1] [2] The more commonly spoken languages dominate the less commonly spoken languages and therefore, the less commonly spoken languages eventually disappear from populations.[2]

The total number of languages in the world is not known. Estimates vary depending on many factors. K. David Harrison, author of "When Languages Die", estimates 6,900 or so languages are spoken on the planet and that more than half of these languages are likely to become extinct over the next century.[2] Harvey also notes that 95% of the world population speak just one or more of 400 languages, while the other 6,500 languages are unevenly distributed among the remaining 5% of the world population.[2] Michael E. Krauss defines languages as "safe" if children will probably be speaking them in 100 years; "endangered" if children will probably not be speaking them in 100 years (approximately 60-80% of languages fall into this category); and "moribund" if children are not speaking them now.[3]


  Number of languages

The total number of contemporary languages in the world is not known. Estimates vary depending on the extent and means of the research used to to discover them, the definition of a distinct language and the current state of knowledge concerning the identities and vital statistics of the various peoples of the earth. Even the number of languages that are known varies as some of them become extinct or are newly discovered within the lifetimes of the active investigators.

One of the most active research agencies is SIL International, which maintains a database, Ethnologue, kept up to date by the contributions of linguists globally. Its 2005 count of the number of languages in its database, excluding duplicates in different countries, is 6,912, of which 32.8% (2,269) are in Asia, and 30.3% (2,092) are in Africa.[4] This contemporary tally must be regarded as a variable number within a range. According to the Global Language Monitor, as of 2012, almost 2 billion people around the globe speak English as either their first or second language, making it the most widely spoken language in history.[2] Mandarin or Chinese is in second place with roughly 1 billion speakers, while Spanish is in third place with about 500 million speakers. Hindi is in fourth, followed by dialects of spoken Arabic with 450-490 million speakers worldwide.[2]

Areas with a particularly large number of languages that are nearing extinction include: Eastern Siberia, Central Siberia, Northern Australia, Central America, and Northwest Pacific Plateau. Other hotspots are Oklahoma Southwest and Southern South America.


While there is no definite threshold for identifying a language as endangered, three main criteria are used as guidelines:

  1. The number of speakers currently living.
  2. The mean age of native and/or fluent speakers.
  3. The percentage of the youngest generation acquiring fluency with the language in question.

Some languages, such as those in Indonesia, may have tens of thousands of speakers but may be endangered because children are no longer learning them, and speakers are in the process of shifting to using the national language Indonesian in place of local languages.

In contrast, a language with only 100 speakers might be considered very much alive if it is the primary language of a community, and is the first (or only) language of all children in that community, actually spoken.

Asserting that "Language diversity is essential to the human heritage," UNESCO's Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages offers this definition of an endangered language: "... when its speakers cease to use it, use it in an increasingly reduced number of communicative domains, and cease to pass it on from one generation to the next. That is, there are no new speakers, adults or children."[5]

UNESCO's Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger categorises 2,500 languages in five levels of endangerment: unsafe, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct.[6] More than 200 languages have become extinct around the world over the last three generations.[7]

UNESCO distinguishes four levels of endangerment in languages, based on intergenerational transfer:[8]

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.


There are many suggestions to how and why languages of the world are becoming endangered and extinct. However, some factors that endanger languages are technology, culture, globalization and popular culture - all aspects of the modern world. As nations all across the world strive to communicate with one another in the hope of boosting their economy and national interests, they are forced to implement "official languages" like English, Spanish, French and so on to promote the high prestige of speaking an imperial language like the common languages listed above.[citation needed] Another factor endangering languages today are the views of parents. Parents today encourage their children to learn common large languages instead of their ancestral languages due to the globalization of the world. Nowadays children are more likely to succeed if they are able to speak the popular languages of the world which enable them to get better jobs and have better futures.

All these trends and factors endangering languages around the world can lead to many detrimental problems to cultures and people. Language itself defines a culture through the people who speak it and what it allows speakers to say. Words that describe a particular cultural practice or idea may not translate precisely into another language.[citation needed] Many endangered languages have rich oral cultures with stories, songs, and histories passed on to younger generations but no written forms. With the extinction of a language, an entire culture is lost.


Linguists, members of endangered language communities, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and international organizations such as UNESCO and the European Union are actively working to save and stabilize endangered languages.[1] Once a language is determined to be endangered, there are three steps one can take in order to stabilize or rescue the language. The first is language documentation, the second is language revitalization and the third is language maintenance.[1]

Language documentation is the process by which the language is documented in terms of its grammar, lexicon, and oral traditions (e.g. stories, songs, religious texts). One may create dictionaries or orthographies. Language documentation also entails the promotion of positive attitudes toward endangered languages both outside and inside the community. This can be done for example by introducing and enforcing linguistic practices.[1]

Language revitalization is the process by which a language community through political, community, and educational means attempts to increase the number of active speakers of the endangered language.[1] This process is also sometimes referred to as language revival or reversing language shift.[1]

Language maintenance refers to the support given to languages that are still vital to the world but need to be protected from outsiders who can ultimately affect the number of speakers of a language.[1] These outsiders could be promoters of globalization who offer jobs that require the knowledge of the more well known national language for jobs such as telemarketing.

Another option is "post-vernacular maintenance": the teaching of some words and concepts of the lost language, rather than revival proper.[9]

  See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Fernando, C., Valijarvi, R. L.., Goldstein, R. A. (Feb 2012). "A Model of the Mechanisms of Language Extinction and Revitalization Strategies to Save Endangered Languages". Human Biology. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Lawrence Baines (2012). "A Future of Fewer Words". http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.kwantlen.ca:2080/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=74c5b7a2-ba74-40f4-98b8-b5b324ad421e%40sessionmgr111&vid=1&hid=110. Retrieved 4 April 2012. 
  3. ^ Krauss, Michael E. (2007). "Keynote - Mass Language Extinction and Documentation: The Race Against Time". In Miyaoka, Osahito; Sakiyama, Osamu; Krauss, Michael E.. The Vanishing Languages of the Pacific Rim (illustrated ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 3–24. ISBN 019926662X, 9780199266623. 
  4. ^ "Statistical Summaries". Ethnologue Web Version. SIL International. 2009. http://www.ethnologue.com/ethno_docs/distribution.asp?by=area. Retrieved 26 April 2009. 
  5. ^ UNESCO ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages (2003). "Language Vitality and Endangerment" (pdf). http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/doc/src/00120-EN.pdf. Retrieved 27 April 2009. 
  6. ^ "UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger". UNESCO.org. 2009. http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?pg=00139. Retrieved 27 April 2009. 
  7. ^ "Languages on Papua Vanish Without a Whisper". Dawn.com. July 21, 2011. http://www.dawn.com/2011/07/21/languages-on-papua-vanish-without-a-whisper.html. 
  8. ^ Moseley, Christopher, ed. (2010). Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edition.. Paris: UNESCO Publishing. http://www.unesco.org/culture/en/endangeredlanguages/atlas. 
  9. ^ Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (August 26, 2009\). "Aboriginal languages deserve revival". The Australian Higher Education. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25980525-25192,00.html. 

  Further reading

  • Abley, Mark (2003). Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. London: Heinemann. 
  • Campbell, Lyle; Mithun, Marianne (Eds.) (1979). The Languages of Native America: Historical and Comparative Assessment. Austin: University of Texas Press. 
  • Crystal, David. (2000). Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Evans, Nicholas (2001). "The Last Speaker is Dead - Long Live the Last Speaker!". In Newman, Paul; Ratliff, Martha. Linguistic Field Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 250–281. .
  • Hale, Kenneth; Krauss, Michael; Watahomigie, Lucille J.; Yamamoto, Akira Y.; Craig, Colette; Jeanne, LaVerne M. et al. (1992). Endangered Languages. Language, 68 (1), 1-42.
  • Harrison, K. David. (2007) When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. New York and London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-518192-1.
  • McConvell, Patrick and Nicholas Thieberger. (2006). Keeping Track of Language Endangerment in Australia. Denis Cunningham, David Ingram and Kenneth Sumbuk (eds). Language Diversity in the Pacific: Endangerment and Survival. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters. 54-84.
  • McConvell, Patrick and Nicholas Thieberger. (2001). State of Indigenous Languages in Australia - 2001 (PDF), Australia State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Natural and Cultural Heritage), Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Nettle, Daniel and Suzanne Romaine. (2000). Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sebeok, Thomas A. (Ed.). (1973). Linguistics in North America (parts 1 & 2). Current Trends in Linguistics (Vol. 10). The Hague: Mouton. (Reprinted as Sebeok 1976).
  • Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. (2000). Linguistic Genocide in Education or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0-8058-3468-0.

  External links



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