In elementary school, you probably learned about endangered species — like the Asian elephant, or the giant panda. But what about endangered languages? Sure, endangered languages might not be as cute as pandas, but they’re certainly just as important.
So, is English in danger of becoming endangered?
Spoiler alert: No. But, there’s plenty of other languages that are, and prevalence of a language isn’t the only reason a language might be important.
In fact, language is one of the main ways we, as humans, preserve our culture and communities. That’s because, “…language is a powerful symbol of a group’s identity,” according to the Linguistic Society of America. “Much of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life of a people is experienced through language.”
How does one know if a language is endangered or not? Organizations like the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) support policies promoting multilingualism, indigenous language education, and raising awareness of the importance of language preservation in education. As part of this initiative, UNESCO provides an interactive atlas that catalogues over 2,500 endangered languages worldwide.
Let’s take a peek at what UNESCO has to say.
How Are Languages Classified as Endangered?
UNESCO’s made it easy to determine whether a language is endangered or not, and if it is, what level of danger it’s in.
The following list is outlined in UNESCO’s “Degrees of Endangerment” interactive atlas:
- Safe — language is spoken by all generations; intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted (not included in atlas)
- Vulnerable— most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home) Languages that may fall under this category include Basque, Eastern Slovak, Koda, and Scots
- Definitely endangered — children no longer learn the language as a mother tongue in the home. Some of these languages are Abaza, Lua, Nahukwa, and Taloki.
- Severely endangered— language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves. Examples here include Dakota, Isu, Mambai, and Yupik.
- Critically endangered— the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently. Languages that fall under this category include Kudu-Camo, Angku, and Forest Enets.
- Extinct— there are no speakers left. Here are a few examples: Gafat, Panobo, Yuki, and Upper Chehalis.
For more detailed information on endangered language classifications and an interactive tool to search endangered languages, be sure to check out UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.
What’s So Important About Preserving Languages?
Language preservation isn’t just about protecting spoken communication. It’s about protecting culture — stories, poetry, songs — and community. And because many languages are spoken without a written form, a language gone extinct means a culture’s history might be lost forever.
Unique Words and Phrases
Languages have words or phrases unique to them. Though these words can be described by other languages, they cannot be directly translated. Mental Floss names 38 foreign words we don’t have an English equivalent for. For example, the word “gigil” in Filipino means, “the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute.” However, in the English language, there is not a specific phrase to describe this action.
Here’s some other interesting words that can’t be directly translated, according to Mental Floss:
- Seigneur-terraces (French) — Coffee shop dwellers who sit at tables a long time but spend little money
- Koi No Yokan (Japanese) — The sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love
- Packesel (German) — The packesel is the person who’s stuck carrying everyone else’s bags on a trip. Literally, a burro…
- Bilita Mpash (Bantu) — An amazing dream. Not just a “good” dream; the opposite of a nightmare
- Greng-jai (Thai) — That feeling you get when you don’t want someone to do something for you because it would be a pain for them
While most of the above examples could be understood by an English-speaker if defined, there are some words in dying languages that are more distinctly connected to the regions they were developed in.
“For example, the Cherokee language has words for every type of berry and stem, with the anatomy of each word giving information about the properties of the item,” according to Borgen Magazine.
Similarly, in Northern Australia, there’s a spoken by the Aboriginal inhabitants which includes specific words for various traditional medicinal plants. Unfortunately, if this language dies, this special medical knowledge passed down from generation to generation may also be lost.
And while we understand that if this Australian language dies, this medicinal knowledge may die with it, there are many other gems and secrets hidden in other languages we aren’t even aware of yet. That’s because the only way to know what’s hidden in these languages would be to preserve and study the languages themselves.
“We have inductive evidence based on past studies of well-known languages that there will be riches, even though we do not know what they will be,” said Andrew Woodfield, director for the Center for Theories of Language and Learning.
These Languages are Dying
Remember those gems and secrets we were talking about? You can find plenty of those hidden in these examples of dying languages that follow.
- Jaqaru — Can you imagine a language with only approximately 740 people left who know how to speak it? Jaqaru is that language. Hidden in the mountains of the providence of Yauyos in Peru, this language existed even before the Incas. In fact the name, “Jaqaru” itself means “human-being communication,” according to The Culture Trip.
- Potawatomi (in Kansas) — A Central Algonquian language, Potawatomi was once spoken by a people who lived near the Great Lakes. This critically endangered language has very few speakers left. One of its last native speakers, a woman known for teaching her Potawatomi language to others, died in 2011 at 88 years old.
- Welsh —Welsh, a member of the Brittonic branch of Celtic languages, has over only over half a million speakers. While over half a million speakers might not sound so bad, the language is falling into the danger zone quickly. In fact, “If we don’t act the number of people speaking Welsh will continue to fall,” said Cathryn Ings, a business manager of a Welsh language initiative. One of the main reasons Welsh is in decline is because its speakers, especially young people age 16-24, are constantly using English. The initiative continues to emphasize “A living language: a language for living,” in its campaigns in hopes of reviving the language among its youth.
- Wukchumni — This dying Native American language from California recently gained attention after being featured in “Maries Journal,” a documentary that followed grandmother Marie Wilcox in her efforts to keep her Wukchumni language alive. She worked hard to create both an oral and a written dictionary, though less than 200 Wukchumni still exist.
- Pupil (aka Nawat) — Pupil, or sometimes referred to as Nawat, is still spoken in select regions of Mexico. This language closely reflects Nahuatl, a language spoken in some parts of Southern Mexico, so much so that it’s often referred to as another dialect of this language. With just 200 Nawat speakers left, according to UNESCO’s 2009 version of the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, the Salvadoran dialect of Pupil is especially endangered. In fact, in some parts of Central America, it’s already disappeared entirely.
- Barawana — Barawana, an Arawakan language that was once spread across South America, Central America, and the Caribbean, now has under 250 speakers left that live near the border of Brazil and Venezuela. Unfortunately, many of these speakers are elderly, and the language is disappearing quickly.
- Manx — The last native speaker of the Celtic language Manx passed in 1974. The language was said to be extinct, but since then, 1,800 people have revived at least some of the language. Perhaps Manx proves there’s still hope for other dying languages, especially in the British Isles, where many other once-spoken languages are preserved only in history books.
How Can We Help Dying Languages?
As with the revived Manx example, we should remain optimistic about preserving our dying languages, even if efforts at first seem to be fruitless labor.
In another uplifting example, the Fiji Rotuman Association reached out to their government to help save their language.
“Although there are 15,000 Rotumans living around the world, less than a third can speak their language,” said the association’s president, according to Radio New Zealand. Now, apart from implementing the language into schools, the association also holds an annual culture day that showcases traditional artifacts and dances.
Recently, the Salt River Elementary School has been working with locals to save Pima-Maricopa, an Indian community’s language in Arizona. Native words and their translations were hung on the walls of cultural classrooms around the school, as well as Native American artworks. The school even incorporated mandatory language classes, complete with modified orthography to make it easier to learn.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Elementary students should continue to be taught about endangered species, like the giant panda. But, what if more schools followed Salt River Elementary School’s lead by teaching endangered and dying languages, too?
Perhaps the world’s dying languages might be revived by the spirit of our youth and those who continue to teach them.
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