Dying World Languages

More than half of the world’s approximately 6,000 languages are facing likely extinction within the next 50 years. In fact, it is estimated that a language dies every two weeks. Many of these languages still have thousands of living speakers, yet the languages are not being passed down to the next generation. Such languages are considered to be “dying” since eventually their last native speaker will die leaving no one left to carry on the language. National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project studied this phenomenon and named Northern Australia, Central South America, Canada’s Northwest Pacific Plateau, Eastern Siberia and the Southwest United States as areas where indigenous languages face the greatest peril. Even here in the US there are some 40 Native American languages still are spoken today in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.

There are many reasons why a language does not get passed down from one generation to another. However, in most cases it is the dominant language of the area that gradually overtakes the minor language in school, work and at home to a point where the speakers of that language no longer bother or find it necessary to pass along the language to their children. In other cases, language policies of the region speed the language’s demise in favor of the dominant language. Once a language is dead, it’s unlikely to ever be revived. Hebrew is the only language to be successfully revitalized as a national language once it had lost its native speakers.

The question is why should anyone care? The truth is that when a minor language dies and is replaced by a more dominant language, the world loses a piece of its cultural history, not that different from the extinction of an animal species. The culture of an entire people is tied to its language so more than just the language is being lost. Since the majority of the dying languages are not written down the oral traditions of thousands of years may be lost forever once the last speaker is gone. For this reason, linguists and cultural anthropologists are in a struggle to record the sounds, grammar and oral histories of as many of these languages as possible. No matter how widely spoken a language is, it is still vulnerable. A perfect example is Latin, which was a dominant language spoken throughout the Roman Empire, yet as the language spread throughout the region, over time it splintered into several different languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, Italian, etc.) and the mother language itself fell into disuse. Even though it is still learned by millions of students and used to a limited degree within the Catholic Church, there are no living native speakers of it. The lesson for us all is to be sure to pass along our native languages and cultures to our children.

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About Bill Zart
I am a language translator, interpreter and business owner with a passion for all things related to language learning, teaching, translating and interpreting.

4 Responses to Dying World Languages

  1. ficklefolly says:

    I completely agree that it is so important to preserve the dying languages. Monolinguists may think it doesn’t matter much about the oral traditions if they simply pass them down in the new language of the region, but there are many phrases in other languages that cannot be translated in the same way or simply don’t feel the same when expressed in the new language. On another note, my grandmother was Polish and my grandfather wouldn’t let her speak to the children in Polish because at that time in the US they wanted the children to assimilate and not hold on to their European roots. By the time I was old enough to become fascinated with languages, she had forgotten the language herself. I would’ve loved to have learned Polish and been able to use another language at home. So I always encourage people to teach their children all the languages they know. The world is becoming more cultural every day and languages are so useful!

  2. Rod Mitchell says:

    Unfortunately, the oral traditions do not get passed down in the new language, and the traditions of the dominant culture – well – logically – dominate. And when the dominant culture includes Disneyland, Sesame Street, and so on, then the power of such drowns out even the little remnants of culture and tradition that remain despite language change – and even the “import” culture (Japanese manga and so on) becomes adapted to the dominant culture. The dominant culture becomes enriched – but everyone else becomes impoverished.

  3. language interpretation says:

    Some of the languages are dying because of the lack of eagerness of some of the native speakers to pass a certain language to the other generation. like for example, some native speakers tries to learn a new language that they can use to earn in a living. And they eventually forgot to pass this language to the next generation. like for example, family A moves to the other country and uses a different language by then they tend to learn that language and eventually when they also have their own family they will then forget to pass their own native language.

    • Rod Mitchell says:

      In Irish – an endangered language in Europe (Europe has many endangered “indigenous” languages – there are around 26 alone in Italy in danger of extinction), there is a saying : Tír gan teanga, tir gan anam “A country/land without a language is a country/land with a soul”.

      Our own language is this important to us – it is a world, our culture, our thoughts. Lose this, and we are no longer “us”.

      Just one other remark – Latin actually didn’t die out. It is still alive and going strong in its modern descendants, particular Italian (Lazio, Tuscany, etc.). The use of literary Latin died out, but not of Vulgar Latin.

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