Why do languages become endangered?

How many languages would you say are spoken today? A running joke in the world of linguistics is that a sample of Americans once responded to this question with a resounding “probably a few hundred”. Obviously, this is just a little far off the actual reality. In fact, estimates by ‘The Ethnologue: Languages of the World’ (considered the most exhaustive source on the issue) show that there are currently 7,111 languages used worldwide. However, we’re beginning to see an atrophy in the creation and evolution of new languages. In other words, linguistic diversity is on the decline. But, why? Frankly speaking, languages die. ‘Ethnologue’ estimates that of the 7,111 languages still alive, 2,895 are already endangered and since 1950, 348 others have become entirely extinct.

Living languages (stsble languages, endangered languages and institutional languages) according to Etnologue

Living Languages Chart

Why write about this?

Well, personally speaking, as a glossophile (a lover of all things ‘language’) who grew up in Wales, but in an area that predominantly spoke English, I have always been intrigued about how and why minority languages like Welsh increasingly diminish with each passing generation. Whilst compulsory to learn Welsh during the entirety of our school life, only 7% of primary school children are considered simultaneously bilingual (having the language as equally native as English from birth) with the majority of other learners actually losing any sort of proficiency after leaving school. These are facts inherently seen through the number of Welsh language speakers dropping from just under 1,000,000 to 500,000 as shown by a consensus published in the 90s. Whilst this article isn’t aimed at analysing the status of the Welsh language (though I could probably write a whole book about it), my experience has served as a personal motivation to investigate how and why languages begin to die out.

Why are minority and endangered languages important?

We might ask ourselves: why, if they are dying out, are endangered languages even worth preserving? Many fall on the social-Darwinian argument that language loss is just a simple fact of life. Yet, in the same vein, others argue that, given our heavy investment in the protection of endangered species and biodiversity which would otherwise become extinct, why should we not also look to invest in language; the one thing that unites all humans alike?

In keeping with the idea of preserving biodiversity, just how ecosystems offer a multitude of services to humans, so too does language diversity. Language systems contain a world of knowledge in fields such as mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, biology etc. An example of the importance of language preservation is the significance in the loss of indigenous languages which know of and actively use medicinal plants that have yet to be explored by scientists. David Harrison, co-founder of the non-profit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, says: “different languages provide distinct pathways of thought and frameworks for thinking and solving problems”. For him, “we lose ancient knowledge if we lose languages.”

How do languages become endangered?

There are many reasons why a language may begin to become endangered. The process of language loss may happen rapidly, as is with the case with speakers of the indigenous Lenca and Cacaopera who abandoned the languages for fear of being found and murdered by Salvadorian troops during the massacre of 1932. However, the death of a language, as is with the majority of cases, happens gradually and may be as a result of the following:

Language attrition

The age-old notion of ‘use it or lose it’ can be said to apply to whether a language becomes endangered or not. Circling back to our example of Welsh speakers, even though a child may grow up speaking a minority language (here, Welsh) at home, they most likely go to a majority-language school (English in this case). Since most of their time is spent learning and conversing in the dominant tongue, they may experience incomplete learning of the minority language and fall victim to its attrition; losing their language proficiency. Parents may also accommodate the use of the dominant language at home simply for the child’s ease or due to dominant languages being considered as culturally and economically more beneficial for the future. Consequently, however, this serves to facilitate language loss as well. As such, we see the creation and use of hybrid dialects, such as Wenglish (Welsh+ English), which find commonplace in the home and which result in many later ‘semi-speakers’ who don’t end up passing down the minority language to their children.

How do we save endangered languages?

Is there really any way of reviving extinct languages or preventing their endangerment? The short answer, yes. There are many preservationists currently working on bringing back old extinct languages through extensive research and archive use. The most famous example of this is Hebrew which, although never died in academia, saw extinction in its colloquial use in the 2nd Century AD. The spoken form was revived and modernised in 19th– 20th Century and now serves as a first language for millions of Israelis. David Harrison, a field linguist, found that 85 per cent of languages remain undocumented. He maintains that the main key to language preservation is written records that include a dictionary.

Launched in 2016, Wikitongues is a community of volunteers who are working together in 70 countries worldwide to record the maximum number of languages possible. They found that, despite the internet’s expansive reach, only 1% of the world’s languages are active and represented online. The community have posted videos of more than 400 languages and dialects on their Youtube page in hopes of actively preventing and promoting lesser-known and endangered languages.

What can you do?

If you’re interested in learning, strengthening and preserving any endangered or minority language, below I have attached links to sites which will get you well on your way:

Mango Languages













About Christian Copeland

Graduate Degree in Modern Languages and Translation (French/Spanish) from Cardiff University, UK. Studied in UNIGE, Geneva, Switzerland and Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain. English teacher, translator and proofreader in the French and Spanish to English combinations.

You May Also Like