Languages on the Edge of Extinction
Since 1950, the number of unique languages spoken throughout our world has steadily declined. Today, the voices of more than 7,000 languages resound across our planet every moment, but about 2,900 or 41% are endangered. At current rates, about 90% of all languages will become extinct in the next 100 years.
Modern advances have improved many spheres of life, but the pace of change and outright neglect have taken their toll. Our world continues to shrink in the variety and distinction of our languages and the cultures those languages bring to life. The languages we speak measure the depth of the patchwork of human diversity across the globe. After global warming, language loss is the Earth’s most acute crisis.
A Brief History of Language Loss over the Past 100 Years
The maps below highlight the percentage of doomed or dormant indigenous languages by 25-year intervals over the past century, reflecting the lifecycle of human generations. A language becomes dormant or extinct when no one can speak it anymore. It becomes doomed when the latest generation of children no longer speak the language. From that point, the last fluent speakers of the language, in their late teens or early twenties, give the language about 75 more years of life. Over the next three generations, the number of speakers declines sharply as this last fluent generation become parents, grandparents, and finally, the last generation of fluent elders. As those elders die, the doomed language becomes dormant or extinct. Only a deliberate effort of revitalization can rescue a doomed language.
By 1920, centuries of language loss had already claimed as many as half of the indigenous languages of Australia, the United States, South Africa, and Argentina. The languages of these countries faced a losing battle with settlement colonization that uprooted indigenous peoples from their homes and led to language loss. Areas of the world that instead experienced exploitative colonization, the plundering of resources but not resettlement, did not face such a wave.
By the middle of the twentieth century, forces including nationalism, urbanization, and globalization began to take their own tolls. Urbanization, like settlement colonization, moves peoples away from ancestral lands. People leave not through forced resettlement but voluntarily depart from the countryside and migrate to cities where they speak the dominant language to take part in the economy.
As late as the final third of the twentieth century, government policies especially in the United States, Canada, and Australia aimed to strip peoples of indigenous identity through education into the larger, national cultural identity. Boarding schools for children aimed to assimilate and acculturate, in large part by preventing the youngest generation from speaking their native languages. This slowed and eventually stopped the intergenerational transmission of many languages, dooming them.
Over the last quarter of the twentieth century, national policies shifted or began to shift to instead encourage children to speak their traditional languages. But funding for language revitalization remained at low levels, and the damage already done to the intergenerational transmission of indigenous languages, combined with the rise of the dominance of English and other national languages, meant that few if any children became speakers. Native language revitalization remained sidelined.
Today, 61% of languages around the world that were spoken as a first language in 1795 are doomed or extinct. Although governments and people around the world have become increasingly aware of the language-loss crisis, policymakers have not allocated enough resources to substantially turn back the tide of the coming wave of extinctions. Right now, 9 languages a year, or one every 40 days, cease to be spoken. By 2080, the rate will rise to 16 languages per year. By the middle of the next century, we will be losing our linguistic heritage at the rate of 26 languages each year—one every two weeks. If we do not tackle the problem of language loss, more than half of all languages will become extinct in the next 100 years.
The Story in the United States
For the last 400 years, Native American languages across the United States have been dying out. Over 200 have become extinct. Many more come ever closer to the edge of that cliff.
When a speech community dies, the world loses a bundle of ideas unique to that culture and a circle of concepts that could only be expressed in that language. The stories that once brought countless generations of a community together never again quicken hearts and minds.
We can still save many of these languages. How many we can save may depend on your support.