Every day, approximately 7,000 different languages are spoken by people all around the globe. On average, this would put about a million speakers per language, which we know isn’t true. Mandarin Chinese has over 800 million native speakers. Hindi is spoken by 390 million people as a first language. Spanish and English are both spoken by more than 340 million native speakers each. So what about the other languages? Some are spoken by only a single person – a lonely existence, without the use of other languages. In this blog post, we’re going to look at endangered languages, and the efforts to try to save them.
What is an endangered language?
One language disappears approximately every two weeks. These are what we call ‘endangered languages’. By UNESCO’s standards, this refers to any language which is no longer being taught to children as the mother tongue. That criteria is where we find so many native speakers of Mandarin, and so few speakers of other languages, and it’s what pushes languages out of existence.
Degrees of endangerment
As well as defining the standards for what makes a language endangered or not, UNESCO have provided several degrees of endangerment for languages.
- Safe. Mandarin and English fall into this category. Millions speak them all over the world.
- Vulnerable. When a language is restricted in its use to certain places or times, we can consider it vulnerable. At this point, the damage can be somewhat reversed. Think of it as lighting a match; the longer you leave it to interrupt the process that’s burning the wood, the less of the match you have left.
- Definitely endangered. This is where we begin to run out of native speakers to address. An endangered language in this category is no longer spoken at home as the mother tongue. Irish falls into this category, as the native language of Ireland that’s now mostly limited to use in official documents and within the education system.
- Severely endangered. A language reaches this point when only the elder generation – grandparents, mostly – speak the language regularly. While their child may be able to understand the language, few speak it regularly and/or fluently.
- Critically endangered. In this instance, the youngest speakers are grandparents, and only frequently speak the language. This is how some languages that exist today are spoken by only one person. Once that individual dies, their language goes with them.
- Extinct. There are no more speakers left. Until recently, there hasn’t been a way to even consider saving the languages for historical records.
Causes of endangerment
How do we get to this point? There are many risks to languages, including:
- Population risk, by war and genocide. War and genocide have contributed to the destruction of many languages, including Western Armenian and many Native American languages.
- Population risk, by famine, disease and natural disaster. In today’s unstable climate, languages aren’t just at risk from the actions of other people. When a population of speakers is placed at risk, there is risk of loss of speakers. COVID-19 is but one modern example of a pandemic that poses a threat to languages all over the world.
- Cultural and/or political marginalization. In this case, human action leads to a language being considered an endangered language. When a language is no longer permitted for use at school or in the workplace, its practicality is diminished and the effort of teaching it to children doesn’t have the same pay-off.
Of course, many languages suffer as a result of multiple causes of endangerment. To return to Irish as an example, the language was affected by colonial activity, cultural marginalization, and famine.
How are endangered languages being saved?
There have been many efforts to save languages before they disappear, some out of a local cultural duty, others as a matter of heritage, and others still for anthropological reasons. Some of these efforts include:
- An emphasis on endangered languages in the local education system
- International revival efforts, such as the development of schools around the world outside of the country from which a country originated
- The Wikitongues project, which seeks to record the last speakers of endangered languages before they disappear; speakers are asked to say a few sentences in the past, present and future tense to help preserve the language after all native speakers have passed away
Why do we need translation services to help?
Languages are vital for communication. Translation services exist to help bridge the connection between people of different cultural backgrounds, who speak and write different languages, without them needing to abandon their own upbringing. Our role is to help you reach more people. Take a look at the languages we work with and the services we provide, and then get in touch for a quote.