Top 10 Things You Need To Know About Endangered Languages

By Anna Luisa Daigneault
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages

This blog post is available in Italian, translated by Martino Dellavedova. It was also translated into Spanish by Antuel D’Adam via Global Voices Español, and it was translated into French by Adboulaye Bah via Global Voices Français.

In honor of UNESCO International Mother Language Day (Feb. 21), I would like to bring attention to some key issues related to language loss. As the language preservation and revitalization movement grows around the world, more and more positive media attention has been given to endangered languages, which is a great step for indigenous language activists who want their languages to gain more respect and recognition. The best way to protect a language is to respect and protect its people. However, there are still many ongoing challenges that language activists face. I want to share this list in an effort to help the broader public become aware of the struggles involved in language revitalization, maybe dispel some of the myths surrounding endangered languages, and hopefully help people understand what is at stake when a language is lost. Without further ado, here are the top ten things you need to know about endangered languages:

10. Since the beginning of the 20th century, minority languages have been shifting to dominant languages at an accelerated and unprecedented pace.

It’s happening fast, especially in former settlement colonies. Language shift is happening rapidly, and the process is related to the ongoing impacts of colonization, cultural assimilation, urbanization and globalization. When there is a contraction of local diversity, it leads to cultural erosion, the loss of minority languages, and can even lead to the loss of cultural identity over time.

9. Up to half of the world’s 7105 languages may be at risk of disappearing.

Several thousand languages are currently experiencing some level of threat. It is important to note that not only are many individual languages at risk, but entire languages families are also going extinct, which is an incomparable loss for humanity.

In terms of assessing individual language endangerment, you can’t always tell if the language is stable based on the number of speakers alone. Sometimes languages still have very large speaker populations, but if the average age of speaker is over 50, that is an indicator that the language is not being passed down to children. The language is therefore not stable, and the number of fluent speakers will soon dwindle. The language might be lost in only a generation or two. In other cases, the numbers of speakers of a language might be low, but if there are enough speakers of all age groups, then the language is still being transmitted to the youngest members of the community, and the language may still survive for many generations to come.

8. Many endangered languages have never been recorded, and have never been written down.

It’s true. There are many languages out there that have no audio recordings. Having high-quality audio recordings of words and phrases in a language are an essential tool for a community that does not have many fluent speakers left, and wishes to preserve the correct pronunciation of the language after the last speakers have passed on, if that is the eventual end to the process of shift their community is experiencing. The next few decades constitute a crucial period for recording the last speakers of the most critically endangered languages, and for supporting local indigenous language activists who are doing great work reviving relatively less endangered, or threatened languages, in their communities. High-quality recordings are also essential for linguists who wish to analyze the sounds and structure of a language, and assist communities in developing language materials suitable for language transmission.

Furthermore, many cultures have passed on their legacy through oral traditions, and did not rely on writing systems for knowledge transmission. However, the need for a suitable orthography arises when speakers wish their languages to be taught in schools, have a presence in the media, and be recognized by state authorities. In some cases, if the writing system is created too hastily, it might not accurately capture the complex sounds found in that language. The best writing systems are created when fluent speakers work with fluent educators and other specialists, and they all take the time to create a writing system that works well for the community’s needs, and can also be readily used on modern computer interfaces. The creation of good writing systems, and the accompanying technology to accommodate special characters, requires time, diligence, patience, coordination and money to pay people to work on the projects.

7. Language loss is happening in nearly every country in the world.

It’s happening near you. With the exception of monolingual countries such as Uruguay (where many indigenous languages were eradicated), Korea, and a handful of other countries, you can observe languages loss in most countries in the world. If you live in Canada, the United States, or Australia, you may be surprised to find out that language loss is not an exotic phenomenon, but also a local one. Many of the First Nations, Native American, and Aboriginal languages that you have heard of are in danger of disappearing, unless the speakers have the necessary resources and infrastructure in place to keep their languages alive. In the case of Europe, there are also many local minority languages in various regions that are at risk of being lost.

While there are threatened languages in almost every country, it is important to note language shift is not evenly distributed across the world, and one can identify Language Hotspots, which are concentrated regions of the world having the highest level of linguistic diversity, the highest levels of endangerment, and the least-studied languages. The Language Hotspots are places in where language documentation is urgently needed in this current generation.

6. Minority languages are an important part of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage.

In our diverse and multilingual world, languages are a source of cultural wealth. Shaped by the places in which they are rooted, the world’s minority languages encode valuable knowledge systems related to people’s cultural adaptation to the local landscapes. Intimately connected to ecological diversity, these diverse local languages are storehouses of taxonomies and environmental knowledge accumulated over generations. Language extinction can also lead to the disappearance of ancient spiritual traditions. Practices once performed in the language might no longer exist the same way as before, and therefore language maintenance is also necessary to keep spiritual traditions intact.

5. Indigenous language activists and professional language allies often toil in obscurity, for little or no pay.

Indigenous language activists are speakers who spearhead local efforts to conserve their languages. They may be involved in teaching children and adults to speak the language, recording the elders’ knowledge, organizing workshops, cultural events, etc. They are often under-recognized by their community, and depending on the circumstances, they work for little to no pay. Of course, there are also many communities out there where the language activists and educators are well compensated for their efforts, so it really depends on the local situation. Language activism is a full-time job. If the activists are toiling with no wages, they deserve to be compensated.

Professional languages allies are usually researchers, linguists and other media or NGO professionals who use their skills and background to assist activists in conserving their languages. In many cases, these people are also volunteering their time, and not being paid for the time they put into the language projects. Securing funding for language documentation projects is very difficult and can be problematic since it can’t be guaranteed from year to year.

4. Language documentation is tedious but fascinating work.

A proper scientific documentation of a language takes many years to accomplish and the best documentation projects involve meaningful collaboration with fluent speakers and other concerned members of the community. The process is always further enhanced when there is participation from multiple trained linguists who each can contribute their expertise.

3. Language revitalization programs are life-long projects.

Doing a language revitalization project is not just a summertime internship project. True revitalization is only possible with long-term commitment from speakers, educators and language activists within the community. Linguists don’t save or maintain indigenous languages, and there is no simple path to revitalization for communities.

2. The Internet is not killing minority languages.

There is a popular misconception that the Internet, as a powerful tentacle of globalization, is contributing to the demise of minority languages. However, the opposite is true. The Internet provides an unprecedented opportunity for minority voices to be heard, thanks to citizen media. Furthermore, online language-learning tools not only help create visibility for minority languages on the Web, but also help speakers share their knowledge and maintain networks over large distances.

1. Digital technology will never replace a living community of speakers, but it can help preserve and teach languages, as well as connect speakers.

Innovations in audio and video recording technology help preserve recordings, can serve as a learning aid, and connect people to other speakers of their language who may not live in the same location. Endangered language communities can now create virtual spaces where speakers can go to listen to their language, no matter where they are in the world. Apps, social networks, blogs and language forums are a great tool for enhancing and facilitating communication, but of course cannot and do not replace the speakers themselves.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to share the article, and re-blog it.

Check out our Endangered Language Resource Page, which lists many ongoing documentation efforts going on around the world. The information on the page is organized according to Language Hotspots, which are concentrated regions of the world having the highest level of linguistic diversity, the highest levels of endangerment, and the least-studied languages.

Anna Luisa Daigneault is Development Officer & Latin America Projects Coordinator at Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.


‘One World, Many Voices’ Photo Gallery Celebrates International Mother Language Day #IMLD14

ImageDear Smithsonian Folklife Festival Friends,

In celebration of International Mother Language Day on February 21, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage has posted a new “Festival Photo Gallery” showcasing the many cultural experts who so generously shared their language revitalization efforts and cultural traditions as part of the One World, Many Voices:  Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage program at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Visit the Festival Photo Galleries and explore the many other resources featured on the One World, Many Voices website.

We extend our sincere thanks to everyone who helped to make the One World, Many Voices:  Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage program possible through their invaluable support, advice, assistance, participation, and research.

With best wishes,

Michael Atwood  Mason, Ph.D.
Director, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Marjorie Hunt and David Harrison
Co-Curators, One World, Many Voices Program

Our language tragedy: A report from Pakistan

by Zubair Torwali

There are 69 languages spoken in Pakistan. In addition to Urdu only one language is recognised in each province as the ‘provincial’ language. The non-recognition of the minority languages causes the death of these languages.

A number of the other minority languages are already waning; and the rest are endangered as per Unesco criteria. The cases of Domaaki in Gilgit-Baltistan and of Ushojo in Swat-Kohistan in the north of the Swat valley are just a couple of examples of the threat minority languages face in our country.

The speakers of these minority languages regard their languages to be of no use for them to be able to progress in life. In order to be successful the linguistic minorities think they have to learn Urdu or English – or both. This way they abandon their language in favour of Urdu or any other powerful provincial language.

These languages cannot be saved unless the governments in Pakistan plan pluralistic linguistic policies. However, it is not the priority anywhere as our political parties have their own interests and whims, which they keep in mind when devising policies.

Sociolinguists suggest that language-in-education policies are shaped by people who have political power; and they design polices for economic and political purposes, not necessarily for linguistic or educational reasons. They also identify nationalism as one of the ideologies that influence language attitudes.

Language plays a quintessential role in developing national identities. This role, however, has negative impacts, as well. The use of a particular language for a ‘national’ or ‘provincial’ identity can lead to the formation of policies that suppress other ‘ethnic groups’– linguistic minorities. This is clearly the case with Urdu which has official recognition in Pakistan and has suppressed the other languages.

Similar is the case with the provincial languages which can, in their turn, suppress other linguistic minorities in the provinces. With all its ills the previous government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was linguistically more pluralistic as it had also recognised four other languages – Seraiki, Hindko, Khowar and Indus Kohistani – to be used as the medium of instruction in areas where these languages are spoken as the primary language.

The exclusive status of Urdu as the sole national language in Pakistan had not only triggered violent riots in former East Pakistan, but had also stirred similar attitudes in present-day Pakistan. In Sindh it was the root cause of the unending controversies between the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs and the Sindhis.

This goes back to 1971-72 when there were furious riots in Sindh over the official recognition of Urdu as national language. The riots then caused two deaths and led to scores of others being injured. Sindhis were conscious of the rich Sindhi literary heritage and felt that it would be undermined by the Urdu dominance.

In Pakistan the other ‘linguistic minorities’ are triply disadvantaged. Suzanne Romaine (2001) states “children who do not come to school with the kind of cultural and linguistic background supported in the schools are likely to experience conflict”.

For instance, a Torwali child comes to school with his mother tongue/home language, Torwali. At school he finds the teacher speaking Pashto. Confused he goes ahead and sees the books in Pashto, Urdu and in English. He struggles to decode what the teacher says; and very often the mediocre teacher looks down upon him and laughs at the way the child speaks Pashto with him. Bewildered the poor child finds himself in a world where what he thinks in, or takes value of, does not exist.

Imagine what option would now be left for the child. He will either run away from the school or, if his parents insist, languish there with no quality education at all. If the child is retained at the school anyway the school becomes the most dreaded place for him – killing his happiness and delight – and consequently stops his cognitive development. His personality-growth stops and at the end of education, say at the intermediate level, he becomes more befogged.

Even after getting his masters degree somehow, this young person cannot communicate well in Urdu, English or Pashto. He loses sixteen years without having learnt any of the languages fully. This is a tragedy that every child from a linguistic minority faces.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where about 24 minority languages are spoken, the present government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has time and again announced that a strategy is underway to adopt a uniform education system in the province. But nobody understands what they mean by ‘uniform education’. It can be one with the abolishment of all elite English medium schools; it can be one through which all schools – public or private – will be forced to adopt Urdu as the only medium of instruction. In both cases the state of education will further deteriorate.

Pakistan is a multilingual country and multilingualism, psychologists suggest, has an extra cognitive advantage. Most of the multilingual countries have by now adopted a language policy in a three-language structure with a distinct function assigned to each language.

In this regard M V Nadkarni (1984) identifies three functions: 1) communication with people of the in-group (the ethnic group); 2) communication with people of the out-group (national); and 3) communication involving specialised information (a world language).

In Pakistan the language of the linguistic group fulfills the first function, Urdu the second; and English the third function. In order to be fully functional in all the functions a Pakistani needs to be multilingual. It becomes the responsibility of the state to provide each individual skills in all three languages.

If a language policy is meant to serve both the individual and the state, the policy should be focused on addressing issues, as social psychologist Herbert Kelman (1971) describes: “how to establish and facilitate patterns of communication – both internally and internationally – that would enable its socio-economic institutions to function most effectively and adequately in meeting the needs and interests of the population; and how to assure that different groups within the society, varying in their linguistic repertories have equal access to the system and opportunities to participate in”.

This supports the mother tongue as medium of instruction at the primary level along with the Urdu and English as compulsory subjects with adequate teaching materials. Beyond that from grade 5 English needs to be the medium of instruction along with Urdu and the mother tongue as compulsory subjects till grade 10. Incorporation of the ‘mother languages’ and recognition of the linguistic rights of each ethnic group will promote linguistic pluralism, which is then sure to promote peace and coexistence.

The International Mother Language Day falls on February 21.

The writer heads IBT, an independent organisation dealing with education and development in Swat. Email:

This piece was originally printed by The News International in Pakistan, and was re-posted here with permission by the author.

“International Mother Language Day” Events at University of West Georgia

At the University of West Georgia in Carrolton, one hour west of Atlanta, in collaboration with local UWG student group BABEL (Building Awareness for the Benefit of Endangered Languages), the events are being held on International Mother Language Day, 2012:
  • February 21 @ 5pm – 6:45pm: Endangered Languages Workshop with Anna Luisa Daigneault in Anthropology Lecture Hall, University of West Georgia. Facebook Event
  • February 21 @ 7pm – 9pm: Free Film Screening of acclaimed film “The Linguists” at University of West Georgia, 1601 Maple Street Dr., TLC Building, Lecture Hall C.  Facebook Event
– See you there! Happy Mother Languages Day!

“International Mother Language Day” Events at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

                                                                                        flyer designed by Marty O’Connor

Show Your Love for Languages!
In conjunction with UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day (coming up on February 21, 2012) and Valentine’s Day, the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the UNC Undergrad Linguistics Club (Underling) team up to bring you these two fascinating events exploring the frontiers of endangered language documentation. Show some love for minority languages by attending these events!

1) Film Screening: The Linguists (Ironbound Films, 2008, 65 minutes)
Date: Monday, February 13th, 2012, 7pm-9pm    Facebook event

Greg Anderson and David Harrison are scientists racing to document languages on the verge of extinction. Filmed in Siberia, India, and Bolivia, this documentary confronts the very forces silencing languages: institutionalized racism and violent economic unrest. The linguists’ journey takes them deep into the heart of threatened cultures and knowledge.

The Linguists world premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival went on to win many awards. Noam Chomsky calls it “a breathtaking thrill ride through the landscape of language” and the film has inspired many people around the world to get involved in language documentation. Greg Anderson is the founder of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, and one of the institute’s project coordinators, Anna Luisa Daigneault, will be present at the screening to introduce the film and to do a Q & A about endangered language documentation after the film.

2) Workshop: Introduction to Endangered Languages and Fieldwork Methods Date: Tuesday, February 14th, 2012, 4pm-6pm   Facebook Event

Minority languages are being increasingly replaced by various politically, economically, or socio-culturally dominant ones. Every two weeks the last fluent speaker of a language passes on and with him/her goes literally hundreds of generations of traditional knowledge encoded in these ancestral tongues. Nearly half of the world’s languages are likely to vanish in the next 100 years.

The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, founded by linguist Greg Anderson, is a non-profit organization dedicated to documenting the world’s most threatened languages. Anderson and fellow institute director of research David Harrison also collaborate with the National Geographic Society in “The Enduring Voices Project”, a global initiative that focuses on the preservation and revitalization of endangered languages through linguist-aided, community-driven multi-media documentation projects.

Anna Luisa Daigneault, Latin American Projects Coordinator and Organizational Fellow at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, will be holding a two-hour workshop on the importance of doing endangered language research in our current generation. She will provide students with an introduction to fieldwork methodology and speak about the use of digital technology in language documentation. Anna Luisa has worked in the Amazon for several years, documenting the Yanesha language and creating an oral history online database. She has also taken part in several Enduring Voices fieldwork trips to Paraguay, Chile and Peru.

For more information on the screening and the workshop, contact UNC event coordinator Natalie Feingold at