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.

Tweet in Your Mother Language on February 21

by Eddie Avila | Director of Rising Voices, a project of Global Voices Online

Over the past couple of years, we have seen a boom in the number of communities around the world that blog, tweet, and share other social media messages in their own native languages. We have featured many of these initiatives on Rising Voices as a way to highlight the inspiring work of others using citizen media to revitalize their languages.

Finding this increased diversity in online content makes it more likely that more people can see their culture and language reflected in online conversations and on digital platforms that they already use on a regular basis. With more young people connecting with others in their native tongues, this participation can also play a major role in building the next generation of speakers of endangered or indigenous languages.

February 21 marks International Mother Language Day (IMLD), providing an ideal opportunity to recognize and encourage those that are using online digital media to revitalize their native languages.

Please join Rising Voices, Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, The Endangered Languages Project, and Indigenous Tweets to help celebrate IMLD through a Twitter campaign to highlight those already tweeting, and encourage more people to tweet in their mother language.

Here is how you can participate:

1) On Friday, February 21, tweet in your mother language about why it’s important to use your native tongue in citizen media.

2) You may also want to follow that tweet with a translation so that more people following along can read your message.

3) Important: add the following hashtags to your tweet:

  • #imld14 (International Mother Language Day 2014)
  • #(the name of the language you are writing in), for example #cherokee #bambara #xhosa

4) Follow along the hashtag #imld14 to see messages from around the world and retweet to help amplify their messages. You may also wish to follow along the hashtag of your language to connect with others that you may not already know.

5) Help someone else get started on Twitter by assisting them by to sign up here so that they can begin tweeting.

We will be featuring many of these tweets throughout the day at @risingvoices. Please join us!

Thanks for reading.

How to Help Living Tongues

First of all, we would like to thank all of our donors who generously contributed to our programs this year! We truly appreciate your support. We rely solely on the generosity of donors and grants to fund our field expeditions, publications, and assistance to indigenous communities struggling for cultural and linguistic survival.

Click here to donate to Living Tongues’ Adopt-a-Language program.

All human languages are tools of creativity and webs of knowledge. Every two weeks, the last fluent speaker of an endangered language passes on. In this critical time, help us document and maintain these languages so that future generations may speak them. Please consider Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, when planning your charitable giving.

Living Tongues has many ongoing documentation projects currently taking place around the world. We need your help to sustain these projects. Our mission is to record vanishing languages as well as create state-of-the-art digital audio-visual materials in collaboration with speakers of endangered languages.

The languages we are currently focusing on are listed here. In choosing a language to support, you are helping linguists and language activists document, conserve and maintain a language. You are also helping future generations gain access to printed materials or online resources produced in their own language. Your generous donation will go towards:

  • Multi-media educational materials such as videos and Talking Dictionaries,
  • Digital databases containing maps, recordings of oral history and endangered knowledge systems,
  • Scientific reference grammars,
  • Traditional pedagogical materials such as ABC books, children’s readers and translated texts,
  • Informational videos and booklets,
  • Fieldtrips for linguists to work with local language activists,
  • Language Technology Kits for endangered language speakers.

Click here to donate to Living Tongues’ Adopt-a-Language program.

Thanks for reading!

Living Tongues featured in Al Jazeera article on India’s endangered languages


Thanks to Bijoyeta Das from Al Jazeera English for interviewing us for this article about India’s endangered languages and the use of social media to help revive them.

“Communities abandon languages when they internalise the negative values connected to their identities, says Greg Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. “Language endangerment is almost always the result of discrimination and bias. Technology levels the playing field,” he says. “But there is no quick fix,” he cautions.

[…] Anderson and K David Harrison launched eight online talking dictionaries as part of the Enduring Voices Project by National Geographic Society and Living Tongues Institute. These dictionaries contain more than 32,000 word entries, and include Ho and Remo of India.”

Read the whole article here.

Indigenous Languages Panel @ Canadian Festival of Spoken Word

This panel took place at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word on Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) territory at the MAI in Montreal, Quebec, on Nov. 9th 2013. It featured distinguished indigenous language activists, poets and scholars. They drew from First Nations oral traditions, spoken word and linguistics to discuss and celebrate indigenous languages in Canada. Panelists explored current threats that their languages face, and presented examples of community education initiatives that are underway to stop language extinction by engaging new generations of speakers. Among many topics, oral transmission, writing systems, phonetics, digital art forms and new media were discussed.

We wish to extend a big thank you to everyone involved in this event! Thank you to the MAI, to the Festival, and to the Festival Director Moe Clark, to everyone who attended, and to everyone who gave presentations. We would like to emphasize how amazing it was to hear all of the panelists’ stories. It is so important to hear about their experiences and approaches to language conservation and revitalization directly from the language warriors themselves. Miigwech.

ImageFrom left to right: Melody McKiver (Anishnaabe), Vera Wabegijig (Anishnaabe), Anna Luisa Daigneault (Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages), Jacques Newashish (Atikamekw). Photo by Leonor Daigneault.

ImageIndigenous Languages: Heritage and Spirits / Langues autochtones: patrimoine et esprit. Photo by Leonor Daigneault.


ImageFrom left to right: Chelsea Vowel (Plains Cree), Kahtehrón:ni Iris Stacey (Mohawk), Leith Mahkewa (Oneida / Hopi / Mohawk), Manon Tremblay (Muskeg Lake Cree), Louise Halfe Sky Dancer (Cree). Photo by Leonor Daigneault.


For more details on this panel, and for bios on all of the participants, please see our event page:



Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

One World, Many Voices

Of the nearly 7,000 languages spoken in the world today—many of them unrecorded—up to half may disappear in this century. As languages vanish, communities lose a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human mind.


The One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage program at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival will highlight language diversity as a vital part of our human heritage. Cultural experts from communities around the world will demonstrate how their ancestral tongues embody cultural knowledge, identity, values, technologies, and arts.

Through performances, craft demonstrations, interactive discussion sessions, community celebrations, and hands-on educational activities, highly skilled musicians, storytellers, singers, dancers, craftspeople, language educators, and other cultural practitioners will come together on the National Mall to share their artistry, knowledge, and traditions; to discuss the meaning and value of their languages to their cultural heritage and ways of life; and to address the challenges they face in maintaining the vitality of their languages in today’s world.

ImageFestival visitors will be able to talk with Kalmyk epic singers and Tuvan stone carvers from Russia, Koro rice farmers from India, Passamaquoddy basketmakers from Maine, Kallawaya medicinal healers and textile artists from Bolivia, Garifuna drummers and dancers from Los Angeles and New York, and many others.

When a language disappears, unique ways of knowing, understanding, and experiencing the world are lost forever. The expert culture bearers participating in the One World, Many Voices program will richly illustrate these different ways of knowing and show how cultural and language diversity enrich the world.

The One World, Many Voices program is produced by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in collaboration with UNESCO, the National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices Project, and the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices Initiative.

2013 Festival Schedule

47th Annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall,

Washington D.C., USA.

June 26-June 30 and July 3-July 7, 2013

Open daily 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Evening events 5:30 p.m.

A full schedule will be available in June 2013.


K. David Harrison at the University of Montana

On Wednesday, 17 April, Mizuki Miyashita of the UM Linguistics Program hosted a series of events with Dr. K. David Harrison, an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Swarthmore College and a National Geographic fellow. Two days before Dr. Harrison’s visit, there was a viewing of the documentary “The Linguists” (in which Dr. Harrison is featured). At Q&A event following the film, Dr. Harrison updated his audience on his most recent projects: Enduring Voices, jointly ventured at National Geographic, and Talking Dictionaries at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.

Dr. Harrison’s public lecture, “Endangered Languages: Local and Global Perspectives,” was very well-attended, and every copy of his book “When Languages Die” was purchased at the book-signing. Dr. Harrison explains that out of approximately 7,000 world languages, 83 are spoken by 80% of the world’s population, and the rest by indigenous or small language communities around the globe in regions which he calls “Language Hotspots.” For example, the Ös language (also known as Chulym) of the remotest regions of Siberia is currently spoken by only 7 people. Dr. Harrison has made the very first recordings of some of these languages. In some cases, these recordings are of the last speaker’s speech. For instance, one of his Talking Dictionaries is of the Siletz Dee-Ni language in Oregon, currently spoken by only one person. Harrison describes how language death eventually leads to intellectual impoverishment in all fields of science and culture. These endangered languages contain “traditional knowledge” of plants, animal species, ecosystems and medicinal remedies. Sometimes language loss translates to the loss of worldviews.

At his talk, he also discussed efforts to sustain, value and revitalize linguistic diversity worldwide and showed the audience original field materials and recordings of “language warriors” to illustrate local perspectives on language endangerment and extinction. As Dr. Harrison stated, “speakers generally love their languages, and want to keep them.” One of the video clips Harrison shared was of a young man singing a hip hop song in Aka (spoken in Northeastern India). Some Aka elders disapprove of the language being used in this way, but according to Harrison these young speakers are a “key to keeping the language.”

About half of world’s languages are predicted to become extinct in this century, including Native American languages of Montana. This event also raised an awareness of endangered indigenous knowledge encoded in languages of Montana, and brought together a diverse group of people: faculty and students of Linguistics, Anthropology, Native American Studies, Communication Studies, Environmental Studies and Music, as well as members of local Indigenous communities including Salish, Kootenai and Blackfeet.

The event was supported by the Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Department of Anthropology, Department of Environmental Studies, Department of Communication Studies, and Department of Native American Studies, Department of Society and Conservation in the College of Forestry and Conservation, Green Thread, the UM Linguistics Club, and the Linguistics Program.

Here are some photos from K. David Harrison’s trip:

ImageDr. Harrison at the University of Montana.

ImageK. David Harrison with Salish tribal linguists Germaine White and Tom Smith.

For more details about his lecture at the University of Montana, check out this article published in the Missoulian. Thanks for reading!

Thank you to all of our donors!

Without you all, our Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for Talking Dictionaries in Papua New Guinea would not have been a success. We would like to extend our sincerest thanks to all of our donors:

Tarek Milleron, Dave Prine, Jessica Illman, Anna Belew, Michael A. Hall, Allison Taylor-Adams, Laetitia Chaneac, Julie Kanakanui, Barbara Partee, David Robinson, Arpiar Saunders, Eric Raimy, Molly Allison-Baker, Robert Munro, Nori Heikkinen, David Nolin, John Ziker, Lee Wilson Ballard, Emily Gref, Mikael Siren, Ryan Henke, Robert Wessling, Sarah Truesdale, Katherine Vincent, Claire Catania, Ulrike Christofori, Boise State Linguistics Lab, Walid Saleh, Chris Donlay, Debbie Anderson, Carla Hurd, Fran Osborne, Laurence Cotton, Sema Balaman, Kimberly Jackson, Sarah Laskin, Audrey Van Herck, James Glenz, Edward Hess, Carley Hydusik, Tamra Wysocki-Niimi, Carl Franco, Bryony Rigby, William Graeper, Tania Reino, Ilona Staples, Nancy Mariano, Stephen Holt, Alex Francis, Alex Sinton, Carole Smith, Bewenca, M. Skelly, Les and Janice Lederer.


12 hours left!

We have 12 hours left to raise $2750 on Indiegogo. Our goal with those funds is to teach a 4-day digital media skills workshop at the Papua New Guinea University of Technology (UNITECH) in which local indigenous students will learn how create new Talking Dictionaries for their own native languages.

Please help us out by chipping in! Thanks for your support!


ImageLanguage Documentation Fieldwork in Papua New Guinea: John Agid (left) speaking to Dr. Gregory D. S. Anderson in Matugar village. Photo by Chris Rainier.

36 hours left!

Here is an important message from K. David Harrison, our Director of Research, about our current Indiegogo fundraising campaign:

Dear friends of Living Tongues,

This is K. David Harrison writing to you to let you know there are 36 hours left in our fundraising campaign to raise money for creating new Talking Dictionaries in Papua New Guinea.

Your gift will go towards training students to create cutting-edge Talking Dictionaries for some of the world’s most under-documented languages. Please consider donating today.

Donate here:

For those of you who have already donated, I want to say thank you for you generosity, and for helping language activists and linguists to safeguard linguistic diversity around the world.

Thank you!

K. David Harrison, Ph.D
Director of Research
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages

ps. Check out the Talking Dictionaries we have already built, along with new ones for minority languages in Latin America:

Image K. David Harrison working with speakers of the Matukar language in Papua New Guinea. Photo by Chris Rainier.