Endangered Languages: What Are They and Why Should You Learn Them?
Across the world, they’re dying out at a rapid rate.
Many that remain are on the brink of extinction.
No, we aren’t talking about the world’s diverse and threatened flora and fauna. We’re talking about languages.
And while you might not be able to preserve the leopard population from the comfort of your couch, you can personally take action to stop endangered languages from going extinct!
The Washington Post estimates that there are over 7,000 languages in the world. However, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population speak just 12 common languages as a native language. This means the vast majority of the world’s languages are actually obscure languages that you’ve probably never heard of.
In previous eras, if you didn’t know a native speaker, you’d be hard pressed to learn a language. Thankfully, you can now learn a language at home through language learning websites, giving endangered languages the best chance they have at survival. Language learning apps can also do a lot—they can even help you learn a language on the brink of death—and they’ve become remarkably popular for preserving the world’s dying languages.
The most comprehensive source for information on endangered languages is UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which allows you to search by region, threat level and even number of speakers.
So if you’re asking yourself, “what language should I learn?” choosing an endangered language may just be easier than ever.
But first, let’s learn more about what endangered languages are, including why they are endangered. Then we’ll look at why you should learn them in addition to more common languages, as well as where you can learn them.
What Are Endangered Languages?
An endangered language is a language that is at risk of no longer being used. As native speakers die out and no new native speakers develop, a language can ultimately die out.
Why Are Languages Becoming Endangered?
Globalization is a major contributing factor to languages becoming endangered. Since business is done on a larger scale, regional languages are no longer as useful and are therefore fading from popularity.
Dominance of more prevalent languages in education is another factor that’s closely related to globalization. Because language is a means for communication, many schools no longer teach local languages since they’re perceived as being less useful than more common languages.
Why Learn an Endangered Language in Addition to a More Common Language?
To understand culture in more depth
Learning an endangered language in addition to a more common language can help you connect with more specific demographics and improve your understanding of the diverse cultures of a region.
For instance, if you’re learning Spanish, you might also want to learn an endangered Latin American language specific to the country you’re most interested in. This will allow you to communicate with groups you might not otherwise interact with.
With many languages vanishing, an important part of cultural heritage also vanishes. Stories, songs and even group identities disappear. The World Economic Forum reports that in many countries surveyed, most people felt that language was the most important part of national identity. So it goes without saying that language is an important part of identity for smaller regional groups, too.
The BBC also notes that languages actually convey culture. For instance, the Cherokee language has no words for “goodbye” or “I’m sorry,” but it does have a special word for the feeling you get when you see an adorable kitten or baby. Language differences like this both reflect and shape culture, and without them, an important part of culture vanishes.
Endangered languages are unique
A lot of people learn common languages, but speaking an endangered language in addition to more common languages will help set you apart. For instance, a lot of people around the world learn French as a second language. That makes sense since it’s widely used in international contexts. However, France is home to 26 other languages that vary from vulnerable to severely endangered. If you enrich your French education by adding Provençal, for instance, you’ll put yourself in the company of what Ethnologue estimated in 1990 as just 354,400 speakers.
It’s easier to learn additional languages
If you are already learning or already speak additional languages, learning endangered languages will be easier than if you speak only your native language. Psychology Today suggests that speaking a second language will help you learn a third language by providing you with learning strategies and helping you see linguistic similarities between languages.
Learning an additional language could help you better understand other languages you speak
Particularly if you select a minority language from a country whose dominant language you speak, there’s a strong chance that that minority language has shaped and been shaped by the dominant language. For instance, the endangered language Yiddish has close ties to the German language. As you study Yiddish, you’re likely to also gain more insight into the German language.
While there are plenty of sorrowful stories about languages dying never to return, there are also a number of success stories. Through determination and dedication, dying languages can be brought back from the brink of extinction or even revived from the dead. Here are a few major success stories.
Evidence suggests that the Hebrew language started in the 10th century BC. It transitioned to different forms of Hebrew before dying out as a native spoken language around the 4th century. However, Hebrew continued to be used in religious writing. In the late 19th and early 20th century, though, there was a movement to revive the language. Since then, Hebrew has flourished and is now spoken by over nine million people.
In the late 1700s, the Hawaiian language took a hard hit when Europeans arrived to the islands. The language was looked down upon and even prohibited in schools in some cases. By the early 1980s, Hawaiian was on the fast track to extinction, with just a few hundred speakers left. However, a few Hawaiian educators took it upon themselves to save the language. In 1984, they opened the first Hawaiian language immersion preschool. Since then, more schools have opened and the language has continued to spread. Now, there are thought to be approximately 24,000 fluent Hawaiian speakers.
The Cornish language is native to the Cornwall region of England. It’s thought to have developed during the British Iron Age and Roman Period. However, in the 4th and 5th centuries, it started to decline. The decline accelerated during the 13th century. The long, slow death ended when the last known speaker died in 1891. A revival movement started not long after. Boards and councils promoted the language, while books about Cornish fueled the rebirth. As of 2008, an estimated 2,000 people were fluent in Cornish and the count is thought to be rising.
Descended from Old Irish, Manx appeared sometime around the 4th century on the Isle of Man, an island located between England and Ireland. As England influenced the island more and more starting in the 15th century, the language started to fade. In 1974, the last known native speaker of the language died. Attempts to save the language had started in the late 1800s when a scholarly revival emerged. However, one man, Brian Stowell, is personally credited with reviving the language through his work studying the language and making recordings of native speakers before the language died out. Schools on the Isle of Man now teach Manx as a second language. In 2011, over 1,800 Isle of Man residents claimed to have some knowledge of Manx. Take Brian Stowell’s example to heart!
Where to Learn an Endangered Language
The Endangered Languages Project
The Endangered Languages Project offers thousands of free resources to strengthen endangered languages. Resources include learning materials like videos and word lists to help you learn endangered languages like Breton (spoken in France), Navajo and countless others.
Mango Languages offers online language education for a wide variety of languages. In an attempt to preserve endangered languages, it offers free courses in five endangered ones: Cherokee, Scottish Gaelic, Yiddish, Tuvan (spoken in central Russia) and Dzongkha (spoken in Bhutan).
Memrise offers a wide selection of language courses. While lessons in common languages are more abundant, there are some useful lessons in endangered languages, as well. The easiest way to find them is by searching “endangered” in the search bar. For endangered language fans, the selection includes Chicasaw, Kristang (spoken in Malyasia and Singapore), Uchinaaguchi (spoken in Japan) and more.
Apps have become a popular way to promote endangered languages.
For Example, the Dixza Talking Dictionary will help you learn this endangered language from Oaxaca, Mexico. If you speak Russian and want to learn the endangered Evenki language of Russia, you might try the Эвдик (Evdik) app.
There are a lot of similar apps out there, so if you find an endangered language you want to learn, be sure to search your favorite app store.
There are over 7,000 languages in the world, but that number is plummeting. If you choose to learn an endangered language along with a more common one, you can help save a valuable piece of world culture and history.