Have you ever wondered if there was a possibility of language extinction, just like what happens with the diverse flora and fauna across the world? You may be surprised to learn that many languages are dying at a rapid rate.

It’s quite difficult to save the world’s most exotic species from the verge of extinction, but who said one can’t take personal steps to save a language from dying? Come, let’s have a look at what endangered languages are and what we need to know about them.

Before jumping in, let’s have a brief lesson about what a language is.

What is a language?

Languages are ways of interpreting and communicating with others in the form of speech and writing used by a community of a particular country. No two languages are the same! A language can provide insight into neurology, psychology, and the linguistic capabilities of different species. Different languages provide distinct pathways of thoughts and frameworks for thinking and solving problems.

What are endangered languages?

When there are not many living speakers of a language, it has the possibility of vanishing as that population of speakers dies. Such languages are said to be endangered. Indigenous languages have all but been replaced by English in the U.S, Spanish in Mexico, and Hindi in India, to give a few examples. Unless circumstances change, these endangered languages will become extinct within the next century.

Numerous languages are no longer being spoken by new generations; these languages will vanish as soon as their last speakers die. Some even claim that every two weeks, one language goes extinct.

Right now, there are about 6000 to 7000 spoken languages in the world. In the decades between 1950 and 2010, 230 dialects were wiped out according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Research studies prove that around 28 entire language families have been considered lost since 1960, which greatly affects the linguistic diversity across the globe. Today, 33% of the world’s dialects have less than 1000 speakers left.

How do languages become extinct?

There are many ways by which a language may become extinct. Outright genocide is one cause of language extinction. For example, when European invaders completely destroyed the Tasmanians in the early nineteenth century, an unknown number of languages also died. Languages can die when a small group of people is pressured by a larger and more powerful group to assimilate into their community. Sometimes, people learn many languages in addition to their own, but gradually give up their own mother tongue and with it, their original culture and ethnic background. Throughout modern history, students have been punished for speaking their native tongues at boarding schools.

Are Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Latin, and Middle English languages extinct?

No. These languages are considered “dead” because they no longer match with the ancient inscriptions or the ancient writings. Ancient Greek gradually evolved into modern Greek and Latin gradually evolved into modern Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian, and other languages.

Similarly, Middle English has evolved into modern English, and Sanskrit gradually influenced Hindi, Bengali, Nepalese, Urdu, and Punjabi. Sanskrit is considered to be the mother of all languages and belongs to the Indo-European peoples and their Indo-Iranian and Indo-Aryan descendants. Sanskrit will forever live on, but as a language unto itself, it is largely dead, with no fluent or native speakers – just a few scholars who are familiar enough with Sanskrit to use it for academic purposes.

Is the process of language extinction sudden or gradual?

Both. The destiny of a language can be changed in a single generation if the younger generation avoids learning that language, so it depends upon the interest of the younger generation to learn their native language from their parents or grandparents before the older generation dies out.

Is there any rough estimate of the quantity of endangered languages?

Yes. Most linguists concur with the theory that there are well over 5000 languages in the world. However, there are many languages that are yet to be known across the globe. A century from now, most of these languages will vanish. A few linguists guess that the number may drop considerably, while some believe that the total could fall precipitously to mere hundreds as most of the world’s dialects, generally spoken by 2000 or 3000 individuals each at most, are encroached upon by languages like English, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Indonesian, Arabic, Swahili, and Hindi. By certain assessments, 80% of the world’s dialects may vanish within the next century. Shocking, isn’t it?

Which organisation classifies a language as endangered?

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, compiles tables of critical, endangered, and extinct languages. They classify languages as ranging from vulnerable to extinct:

Vulnerable – Denotes a situation where most children do speak the language but only in certain circumstances, e.g., at home with their parents.

Definitely Endangered – Children no longer use the suggested language as a mother tongue.

Severely Endangered – A language which is only spoken amongst older generations, who may use it when speaking to each other but not to younger individuals.

Critical – This means the language is rarely used even amongst the oldest members of that society.

Extinct – There are no speakers remaining.

Here are a few examples of dying languages from around the world:

  1. Manchu
  2. Kristang
  3. Cappadocian Greek
  4. Gottscheerisch
  5. Ata
  6. Aromanian
  7. Karaim
  8. Istriot
  9. Tolowa
  10. Sicilian
  11. Bodo
  12. Deori
  13. Garhwali
  14. Kachari
  15. Miji

What does language endangerment mean for a community and for most of us?

A great deal of cultural identity is lost when a community loses its language. Language loss can be voluntary or involuntary, but it is always felt as a loss of personal and social identity, or seen as a symbol of defeat.

A group’s identity is symbolized by the language it speaks; people experience many of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual diversities through a common language. These range from myths, prayers, functions, speech, verse, and music to specialized vocabulary like regular greetings, leave-takings, conversational styles, humour, methods of addressing kids, and terms for habits, practices, and feelings.

Your community will surely have a distinctive range of diversities that are quite different from mine. Every community has a range of emotions behind their various ceremonies and it can’t be recreated in a different language altogether. A community’s history is passed down through its language, so when the language disappears, it may take with it important information about the early history of the community itself. When a language is lost, all of this gets replaced by a new language with different words, sounds, and grammar.

Human languages often help linguists learn about human cognition, including the important things about the human mind and how it is that children are able to learn a complex language so quickly and easily. Certain vocabulary is easy to learn and other parts of a language may not be. With language extinction, there are fewer chances to explore and understand the reactions to different words by the human mind.

Thankfully, there are ways to save languages from dying.

What can be done to preserve endangered languages?

There are many ways by which a community can preserve or revive its language. For example, one might organize conferences, workshops, and publications that support individuals, schools, and communities that are trying to preserve languages. Videotapes, audiotapes, and written records of every endangered language are recorded by researchers in both formal and informal settings, along with translations. They also analyze the vocabulary and rules of the language and write respective dictionaries and grammar guides.

Assessing Which Languages Are Endangered

The most common factor in evaluating the vitality of a language is to find out whether it is being passed on to the newer generations. There is a tool which can help measure the status of a language in terms of endangerment or development. This is also known as the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS).

Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS)

On the EGIDS, level 6a is considered “vigorous” in its community use. All of the remaining levels on the developing side of the EGIDS scale (4 or lower) have in common that the language has been developed to the point that it is utilized beyond the home and immediate community. The opposite side of the scale indicates that a language is losing or has lost users, ranging from heading toward language endangerment all the way to language extinction. Here is the scale for your reference:

EGIDS 0: International

EGIDS 1: National

EGIDS 2: Provincial

EGIDS 3: Wider Communication

EGIDS 4: Educational

EGIDS 5: Developing

EGIDS 6a: Vigorous

EGIDS 6b: Threatened

EGIDS 7: Shifting

EGIDS 8a: Moribund

EGIDS 8b: Nearly Extinct

EGIDS 9: Dormant

EGIDS 10: Extinct

Considering the current scenario of the languages being spoken in the world, there will be a time in the future when, if the older generations speak something in their native language, the younger group would ask what they’re talking about or maybe even laugh while listening since they have no idea what is being said.

So, what do you think about your native language? Are you now able to analyse if it is a safe language or endangered? Comment below about your thoughts on this topic.

Till next time, happy learning. Adios, amigo!

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