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An endangered language is a language that is at risk of falling out of use. If it loses all its native speakers, it becomes an extinct language.

The total number of contemporary languages in the world is not known. Estimates vary depending on the extent and means of the research intended to discover them, the definition of a distinct language and the current state of knowledge concerning the identities and vital statistics of the various peoples of the earth. Even the number of languages that are known varies as some of them become extinct or are newly discovered within the lifetimes of the active investigators.

One of the most active research agencies is SIL International, which maintains a database, Ethnologue, kept up-to-date by the contributions of linguists globally. Its 2005 count of the number of languages in its database, excluding duplicates in different countries, is 6912, of which 32.8% (2269) are in Asia and 30.3% (2092) are in Africa.[1] This contemporary tally must be regarded as a variable number within a range. Michael E. Krauss reported in 2007:[2] "The worldwide total figure I have been using is 6000 extant languages, a nice round figure that happens to be one millionth of the human population, a kind of middle figure ...."

Krauss goes on to define languages as "safe" if children will probably be speaking them in 100 years; "endangered" if children will probably not be speaking them in 100 years; and "moribund" if children are not speaking them now. If 5-10% are safe and 15-30% are moribund then the endangered languages amount to 60-80% or 3600-4800 languages.[2] Krauss' safe languages have over a million speakers, an arbitrary threshold. The not-safe languages, both moribund and endangered together, amount to about 50%, or 3000 languages. This is a non-mathematical and somewhat imprecise expectation that an average of 30 languages per year will have reached the brink of extinction between 2000 and 2100.

UNESCO, heavily influenced by Michael Krauss and Stephen Wurm, adopted the 6000 round figure and the "new speaker" criterion in attempting to define endangered languages.[3] Asserting that "Language diversity is essential to the human heritage" the Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages offers this definition of an endangered language: "... when its speakers cease to use it, use it in an increasingly reduced number of communicative domains, and cease to pass it on from one generation to the next. That is, there are no new speakers, adults or children." Currently the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger subdivides the former "endangered" category into "unsafe", "definitely endangered", "severely endangered" and "critically endangered."[4] UNESCO's Red Book of Endangered Languages uses the classification "potentially endangered," "endangered" and "severely endangered."[5]


Identifying endangered languages

While there is no definite threshold for identifying a language as endangered, three main criteria are used as guidelines:

  1. The number of speakers currently living.
  2. The mean age of native and/or fluent speakers.
  3. The percentage of the youngest generation acquiring fluency with the language in question.

Some languages, such as those in Indonesia, may have tens of thousands of speakers but be endangered because children are no longer learning them, and speakers are in the process of shifting to using the national language Indonesian (or a local Malay variety) in place of local languages.

In contrast, a language with only 100 speakers might be considered very much alive if it is the primary language of a community, and is the first (or only) language of all children in that community (most of Andaman languages, actually spoken).

UNESCO's online Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger categorises 2,500 languages in five levels of endangerment: unsafe, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct.

Debate over endangered languages

One view holds that the extinction of languages should be prevented, even at significant cost. A number of reasons are cited, including:

  • an enormous number of languages represents a vast, largely unmapped terrain on which linguists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers can chart the full capabilities and limits of the mind;
  • languages embody unique local knowledge of cultures and natural systems in the regions in which they are spoken and such diversity is essential for promoting scientific and technological progress since it is the interaction of ideas that is one of the major generators of human invention; and
  • languages serve as evidence for understanding human history (see NSF article on endangered languages).

The view at the other end of spectrum is that this is not a problem and in fact should be encouraged. Fewer languages means better and clearer communications among the majority of speakers. The economic cost of maintaining myriad separate languages, and their translator caretakers, is enormous. For instance, a company could save a lot of money designing and marketing a product in one language, and with one set of instructions. The extremist position of this view is that all languages should give way to one single language, thereby creating the greatest economic efficiency possible by utterly avoiding all transaction costs associated with linguistic differences. It is unclear whether such a monolingual culture would be stable, because it is not certain in what way and extent changes in technology will affect the forces that originally drove the development of the huge range of different languages from the theoretical one proto-world language (for example, if linguistic divergence requires isolation, massively accessible worldwide communication will work against the process). Some argue[who?] that a unified language is undesirable, saying that such a culture would also be frozen in other ways, and would not encourage other forms of intellectual diversity and change that such diversity promotes. Some also believe that while this is an interesting theory, it is also a dangerous theory, as languages only die if people die.

Members of communities where endangered languages are spoken sometimes have views on these issues that surprise those at either end of this spectrum. On the one hand, communities can actively resist promotion of their own minority language, since children educated in the language are perceived to be at an economic or social disadvantage, when compared to children educated in a more dominant national or trade language. This is sometimes the case in countries like China or Indonesia, which have a national lingua franca, as well as many minority languages. On the other hand, members of very small linguistic communities sometimes express strong appreciation for the language as a means of communication as compared with other available languages, even in the face of disagreement from others from outside the community who are also familiar with it. Eg: Konkani spoken in south India - Konkanis who migrated to Kerala from their original habitat Goa 400 years back due to Portuguese attack today speak two dialects of Konkani, Malayalam,Hindi & English. English & Hindi are used to communicate with non malayalees, Malayalam with locals, one variant of Konkani for informal talks & the other variant (which they do not teach to anybody else) for conveying secret messages among members of the community. This is how both variants of Konkani survived for 3 centuries among a few thousand speakers amidst & freely interacting with 30 million malayalees.

Reviving endangered languages

Once a language is determined to be endangered, there are two basic steps that need to be taken in order to stabilize or rescue the language. The first is language documentation and the second is language revitalization.

Language documentation is the process by which the language is documented in terms of its grammar, its lexicon, and its oral traditions (e.g. stories, songs, religious texts).

Language revitalization is the process by which a language community through political, community, and educational means attempts to increase the number of active speakers of the endangered language. This process is also sometimes referred to as language revival or reversing language shift.


  1. ^ "Statistical Summaries". Ethnologue Web Version. SIL International. 2009. Retrieved on 26 April 2009. 
  2. ^ a b Krauss, Michael E. (2007), "Keynote-Mass Language Extinction and Documentation: The Race Against Time", in Miyaoka, Osahito; Sakiyama, Osamu; Krauss, Michael E., The Vanishing Languages of the Pacific Rim (illustrated ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-24, ISBN 019926662X, 9780199266623 
  3. ^ UNESCO ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages (2003). "Language Vitality and Endangerment" (pdf). Retrieved on 27 April 2009. 
  4. ^ "UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger". 2009. Retrieved on 27 April 2009. 
  5. ^ Tapani, Salminen (1993-1999). "UNESCO Red Book on Endangered Languages: Europe". Retrieved on 27 April 2009. 

Additional Reading

  • Abley, Mark (2003). Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. London: Heinemann. 
  • Campbell, Lyle; Mithun, Marianne (Eds.) (1979). The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment. Austin: University of Texas Press. 
  • Evans, Nicholas (2001), "The last speaker is dead - long live the last speaker!", in Newman, Paul; Ratliff, Martha, Linguistic Field Work, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 250–281 .
  • Hale, Kenneth; Krauss, Michael; Watahomigie, Lucille J.; Yamamoto, Akira Y.; Craig, Colette; Jeanne, LaVerne M. et al. (1992). Endangered languages. Language, 68 (1), 1-42.
  • Harrison, K. David. (2007) When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. New York and London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-518192-1.
  • McConvell, Patrick and Nicholas Thieberger. (2006). Keeping track of language endangerment in Australia. Denis Cunningham, David Ingram and Kenneth Sumbuk (eds). Language Diversity in the Pacific: Endangerment and Survival. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters. 54-84.
  • McConvell, Patrick and Nicholas Thieberger. (2001). State of Indigenous languages in Australia - 2001 (PDF), Australia State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Natural and Cultural Heritage), Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Sebeok, Thomas A. (Ed.). (1973). Linguistics in North America (parts 1 & 2). Current trends in linguistics (Vol. 10). The Hague: Mouton. (Reprinted as Sebeok 1976).
  • Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education or worldwide diversity and human rights? Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0-8058-3468-0.

See also

External links


Simple English

An Endangered language is a language with very few native speakers, that is in danger of becoming extinct.

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