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Endangered Languages 

   What is an endangered language?

The world faces enormous challenges in maintaining language diversity. Of the more than 6,912 languages, half may be in danger of disappearing in the next several decades, although this figure cannot be verified.

Endangered languages are languages that are on the brink of extinction, much like endangered species of plants or animals. A language is considered to be endangered when parents are no longer teaching it to their children, and it is no longer being actively used in everyday life. A language is considered to be nearly extinct when it is spoken by only a few elderly native speakers.

Among factors that contribute to language endangerment are small number of speakers, their ages, whether or not children are using the language, the regular use of other languages, feelings of ethnic identity and attitudes about their language, urban drift of the younger population, government policies, language(s) used in education, as well as availability of jobs. A language may also lack important factors that contribute to its survival such as an alphabet, a body of literature, and people who read and write it. A language may also lack prestige and support of its speakers (Ethnologue). The survival of a language is also threatened when speakers move to other areas where different languages are spoken, or when government policies promote the use of a specific language in school, official business and the media. These situations encourage people to learn the wider-used language and may cause them, especially the young, to stop using their mother tongue. Often those speaking lesser-known languages will choose to learn a more prestigious language with the hope of greater economic opportunities. In many parts of the world parents are teaching their children English,FrenchSpanishChineseArabicRussian or some other dominant language instead of their own language for social and economic reasons.

Below is data on the world’s smallest languages (Ethnologue). 1,619 (or 23%) of all world languages are spoken by fewer than half-a-million people, 548 (about 8%) are spoken by fewer than 100 people, and 204 (or 3%) of all world languages are spoken by fewer than 10 people.

Number of   speakers Number of languages
100 -999 1,071
10-99 344
1-9 204
Total 1,619


   What is a nearly extinct language?

516 of the languages listed in Ethnologue are classified as nearly extinct because they are spoken by only a few elderly speakers.The table below shows the number of nearly extinct languages by major world areas.

The Pacific
The Americas

Click here to learn about the exact location of these languages.

   What is being done to preserve endangered languages?

Many organizations and institutions have fascinating projects aimed at documenting and preserving one of the world’s most precious resources — its languages.

The Foundation for Endangered Languages supports the documentation, protection and promotion of endangered languages. Endangered Languages Project seeks to promote the revitalization of languages headed for extinction.  


8 Responses to Endangered Languages

  1. World Population

    As mentioned, the Endangered Languages Project is one among many fascinating projects designed to conserve dying languages. I had no idea that there are hundreds of distinct languages in the world with less than ten fluent speakers and some with only one elderly native speaker. Over 40 percent of the world’s approximate 7,000 languages are at risk of disappearing!

  2. newspeakMAG

    Yes it is true, languages are dying, so we should write about them, try to give them new life. But sometimes new languages are born.

    • Irene Thompson

      I read about Light Warlpiri. Very interesting. The problem is that it has a small community of speakers and it will need many facilitating factors to ensure that it survives and spreads. The most common route for language birth is either through (1) Pidgin to Creole to Language (the border between the latter two is blurry). (2) Geographic isolation when a language splits into what eventually become independent and sometimes non-mutually intelligible varieties.

  3. Michele Slinkard

    I teach in an intensive English program with the goal of preparing students for study at an English-medium university. With knowledge of the importance of English all around me every day, I also apppreciate the efforts of the Endangered Languages Project. I would like to prepare a presentation for one of my classes on this topic. Thank you.

  4. Katie

    Dear Irene,

    I would like to ask you a question about endangered languages. I really want to learn Manchu (a highly endangered language spoken in Northeastern China), do you know any English books about the grammar of this language? Also, what languages are closest, with respect to phonology and grammar, with Manchu? Mongolian?


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