January 25, 2001

Languages on the Brink

Word Fray  

The number of languages spoken around the world is plummeting rapidly. Why are languages going extinct, and what, if anything, can we do about it?

The word "extinction" has been applied to animal and plant species for so long that to hear it used in relation to languages seems strange at first. But language extinction is happening all around the world. And it's happening quickly.

Humans once spoke an estimated 15,000 languages. That number has dwindled to about 6,000. Forces are now converging that will stamp out half of the world's remaining languages in the next 100 years.

  • If the world's languages were to die out at a steady rate over the next century, how many languages would die per year?

  • By what percentage has the number of languages already declined?

According to David Crystal, author of Language Death, several major factors kill languages: physical damage done to communities either by natural disasters or disease, political opposition to minority languages, and globalization, in which dominant languages such as English tend to steamroller native tongues.

Crystal explains that natural catastrophes such as tsunamis (killer waves) can wipe out whole villages, potentially decimating an entire language in one fell swoop. The same is true for disease and famine. For example, the intentional introduction of smallpox by white invaders was the greatest contributor to the loss of American Indian languages in this country.

Invaders often seek to suppress the identity, culture, and unity of conquered inhabitants by prohibiting them from using their own languages. Even when nondominant languages are allowed, governments worried about maintaining power and control have no interest in preserving endangered languages.

In this country, the federal government tried to eliminate American Indian languages by forcing Indian children to attend English-only boarding schools. An 1868 federal report regarding American Indian affairs suggested that "Schools should be established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialects should be blotted out and the English language substituted."

Until the 1960s, it was common for the Australian government to remove Aboriginal newborns from their parents to be raised in missions or settlements. According to "Speaking In Tongues," a 1997 Time magazine article, "when white settlers first arrived in Australia in 1788, the continent supported some 250 Aboriginal tongues. Today, only 20 are considered viable."

  • By what percentage have the Aboriginal tongues declined?

While languages can be forcibly repressed, what often happens is that a language becomes moribund or inactive. This means that it is spoken only by adults who choose not to teach it to their children. This decision often stems from parents wanting their kids to succeed in the dominant culture. For example, a family may leave its homeland in pursuit of better opportunities or safer lives. In such cases, parents may not teach their children their native tongue because they want them to focus on becoming fluent in the dominant language in order to succeed in their new society.

Crystal says the third and probably largest factor in language death is globalization. The invasion of technology into every corner of the world is exposing once protected pockets of unique cultures to the dominant languages in that area. In Canada, that is English. In South America, it is Spanish and Portuguese .

What Is at Stake?  

Visiting another country immerses the traveler in a different world, one of unique smells, foods, sounds, tempos, rituals, and people. Such differences can be exhilarating. Some linguists believe that the loss of languages around the world will lead to a loss of cultural diversity. They fear that this homogenization or "sameness" will make the world a much less interesting place.

Language is unique because it reflects what is important to each culture. Think of all the words that computer technology, specifically the Internet, has spawned in American culture. Examples abound: e-mail, e-commerce, chat room, download, telecommute, home page, dot-com. In 1997, Millennium Bug was chosen as the word of the year by the American Dialect Society.

On the other hand, an agricultural society more in tune with the Earth and its cycles may contain more words relating to the natural rhythm of the land. Time magazine reports that in "the Eastern Arrernte language of Central Australia the simple, sensual word nyimpe denotes 'the smell of rain.'"

"Being aware of another language gives you a perspective of life you don't have," says David Crystal. "It makes you a fuller human being, seeing the world from as many perspectives as possible."

  • In the chart to the right, look at the top six languages spoken in the world today. How many more people speak Mandarin Chinese than English?

  • The world has approximately 6 billion inhabitants. Estimate what proportion of them speak English. What proportion speak Mandarin Chinese?

  • Total the number of people who speak the top six languages. What percent of the world's population speaks one of these languages?


Total Speakers

Mandarin Chinese




Hindi (India)





(The World Almanac
and Book of Facts 1998)

What Can Be Done?  

Experts differ about the best way to handle dying languages. Some believe that language extinction is a natural occurrence and should be allowed to happen. Others believe that moribund languages should be documented while they exist and that as much data as possible should be recorded. A third possibility is interfering to stop a language from dying.

"The future of endangered languages is very much in the hands of young people who were brought up speaking English instead of their native languages," says author Crystal. "These kids are going to be parenting the next generation of speakers. It's up to them whether they're going to let languages die."

According to Crystal, there are three key ways to preserve languages:

  1. There must be bottom-up interest in preserving languages. In other words, there must be a genuine interest on the part of the native speakers, their families and communities, in preserving their languages. "Some of them could care less," says Crystal.

  2. There must be top-down sympathy from the local and national governments concerning the preservation of minority languages and cultures.

  3. There must be enough money from governments or private sources to be funneled into maintenance programs, teacher training, and persuading people within a community that maintenance is worthwhile.

  • Take a few moments to devise three solutions that might slow language extinction.

Nab Some Vocab

English is not an endangered language, but most Americans use only 1,000 of the 2,000,000 words available to them.

What percentage of the English language do most Americans use?

Improve your vocabulary by using the dictionary, rhyming dictionary, and lexicon at Riverdeep's Writer's Resource Library. (Requires Shockwave. Download now.)


Learn More

  • Read the Riverdeep Current article, "Reviving the Memory of a People," to learn why it's important to know the stories of our ancestors.

  • The Riverdeep Current article, "You've Got Mail!" talks about how e-mail is changing the way we communicate—for better and for worse.

  • We can see how technology has affected our language in the Riverdeep Current story, "Welcome to the ????s," which discusses what the new decade should be called.

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