Endangered languages: a glimmer of hope

Enduring Voices, run in conjunction with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, aims to preserve endangered languages by identifying locations where languages are most at risk, and then documenting the languages and cultures within them. These locations comprise those that harbour the planet’s most unique, lesser understood and most threatened languages.

The sad and shocking reality is that, if current trends continue, more than half of the world’s 7,000 languages will die out by the year 2100. That’s one language every fortnight. And with every language that disappears, so too does the culture and history intrinsically linked to each one. Stories, songs, traditions and knowledge passed down from generations will be lost, as will local knowledge about the land, traditional remedies and privileged knowledge about the natural world. To make matters worse, some of these language have not yet even been recorded, and some exist only in verbal form, rather than written – making them even harder to preserve.

Why are all these languages in danger of disappearing entirely?

As has been happening throughout history, some languages will naturally be more dominant or hold more prestige than others, and it is these languages that will tend to be spoken to the detriment of smaller, less important languages. Official language policies may also encourage people to speak a common language, sometimes in preference to their local, native tongue which is then deemed to be less useful. On the same note, government policies that force tribes to leave traditional ways of life, by destroying their natural habitat for economic gain, for example, directly contribute to the loss of indigenous languages as well as to local knowledge and customs.

And the more a dominant language spreads, the more importance it gains, and the more people want to learn it – sometimes resulting in parents not passing down the language of their ancestors to their children, in favour of the language that they think will help them progress further in the world and gain future employment.

So, although this is a naturally occurring phenomenon in human history, the rate at which languages are disappearing has accelerated over recent years and this is why the National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project could not come at a more pertinent time.

Fascinating language facts:

• More than 500 languages (more than 5% of the world’s total) are spoken in Nigeria alone. Some of these languages may only be spoken by a handful of people, many of these elderly.

• 80% of Africa’s 2,000 languages have no written form

• The Tofa language of Central Siberia is spoken by less than 30 people now, all of them elderly, and is likely to become the next victim of Russian-only government policies that force speakers of minority languages to use the national language

• Small populations of speakers such as those in Eastern India and Malaysia have potential to be wiped up by a single catastrophic natural disaster such as the 2004 tsunami

• Some languages such as Yami, on the tiny Irala Island south of Taiwan, are intrinsically linked to the local way of life; here on Irala, Yami contains the names for over 450 species of fish, which is the major food source – and of which, according to local culture, pregnant women are only permitted to eat 4!

• Oklahoma is home to the highest density of indigenous languages in the US

• The Andes mountains in South America, including part of the Amazon Basin, contains some of the most endangered languages, as Spanish, Portuguese and the most dominant indigenous languages replace minority ones

Read the article in full on the National Geographic website

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