Endangered languages

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17 June 2019
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Endangered languages

As certain languages spread, others are spoken less and less. We often hear that the three most widely spoken languages are English, Chinese and Spanish. The number of people speaking these languages is increasing every day. The top 10 most widely spoken languages account for around half of the world’s population. But what about the world’s least spoken languages?


Numerous languages at risk of extinction

There are around 7,000 languages spoken around the world, and around 2,000 of these are at risk of extinction. It is estimated that one language dies out approximately every two weeks. Most of these languages do not exist in written form and are passed on orally from one generation to the next, which makes attempts to preserve them somewhat difficult.


Every language is part of the world’s linguistic heritage, which we must try to protect. Here are some of the most at-risk languages:


  1. Ongota, or Birale, is an Ethiopian language that now has only around ten native speakers. Tsamai, the language of the dominant Ts’amakko tribe, has become the primary language in South-East Ethiopia, to the detriment of Ongota.
  2. Guugu Yimithirr is an Aboriginal language spoken today by around 700 people in North-East Australia. It is this language that gave us the word “kangaroo”, and it was the first Aboriginal language ever to have been recorded in writing. An idiosyncrasy of this language is that it does not use egocentric directions (e.g. right, left, forward, backward), but instead refers to the points of the compass. Thus, “to lean forward” might be expressed as “to bend south”, or north, depending on which way the person is facing.
  3. Koro is now spoken by fewer than 800 people. This language from North-East India differs greatly from other languages in the region in terms of both grammar and vocabulary. It was discovered in 2008 and is spoken today only by the elderly. It forms part of a list of 150 Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in India.
  4. Nganasan is spoken today by around 800 people. The Nganasan people live in northern Siberia and the younger generations speak only Russian, although some are able to understand the language of the older generations.
  5. Apinajé is spoken by indigenous peoples in northern Brazil. Around 1,500 people speak and understand this language, which is still being passed on from one generation to the next. The Apinajé people are obliged to learn Portuguese so as to be able to communicate with the rest of the country, in particular for trade. Apinajé is part of the Macro-Jê family of languages, of which more than have been lost in the last hundred years or so.


There are also endangered languages in Europe. For example, Arbërisht is a language spoken in central and southern Italy. It is of note for the fact that it has preserved the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary of pre-Ottoman Albanian. For a modern Albanian-speaker, reading or listening to Arbërisht would be similar to an English-speaker trying to converse with someone from Shakespeare’s time.


In France, where around 75 regional languages were once spoken, only around seven are now in frequent use: Alsatian, Moselle Franconian, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican and Occitan. Of the French regional languages, only these, plus Tahitian, can be taught in French schools. And yet, all of France’s regional languages are part of its linguistic heritage, and thus worthy of protection.


Why do some languages die out?


Most often, a language dies because another language is dominant in the region. When one culture is predominant relative to another, the minority culture dies out. This may be linked to colonisation, for example.

The main factor in the disappearance of a language is the failure to pass it on to younger generations. If a language is spoken by 2,000 people, but none of these people speak the language to their children, then 50 years later, the language dies with the older generation. But why would anyone choose not to pass their mother tongue on to their children? Many countries consider that national unity stems to a great extent from sharing a single national language. In France, for instance, the wording of the Constitution was amended in 1992 to state that “the language of the Republic is French”, to the detriment of regional languages.

The loss of a language can also result in the loss of a crucial means to understand a linguistic group and its history, culture and local environment. Would you be able to convey the history and values of your country in a foreign language? We must promote multilingualism so as to save our world heritage.


A different language is a different vision of life Federico Fellini



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