World’s most spoken languages   Prevention rather than cure...

Endangered languages

17 March, 2009 17:21  EasyExpat EasyExpat

Only one native speaker of Livonian remains on Earth, in Latvia. The Alaskan language Eyak went extinct last year when its last surviving speaker passed away. Manx in the Isle of Man and Ubykh in Turkey have joined the list of extinct languages. Last week, we discussed the world’s most popular languages; this week let’s take a look at the other end of the spectrum - languages that run the risk of extinction.

So firstly, how does a language qualify to be considered endangered?
In most general terms, it means that parents are no longer teaching the language to their children and are not using it actively in everyday matters.

There are many reasons that contribute to languages dying out. Key amongst them is a small number of speakers of the language to begin with. This coupled with influences like the use of other languages regularly in various cultural settings, feelings of ethnic identity towards another group, the ever increasing migration from rural areas to bigger cities, different language(s) used in education, as well as economic intrusion and exploitation may easily push a language to extinction.

According to a recent survey conducted by UNESCO, of the 6,900 languages spoken in the world, some 2,500 are endangered. And these aren’t just languages spoken in remote parts of the world.

India for example, tops the list of countries with the greatest number of endangered languages, 196 in all, followed by the United States which stands to lose 192 and Indonesia, where 147 are in peril. Sub-Saharan Africa which is home to some 2,000 languages is also expected to shrink by at least 10 percent over the coming century.

On UNESCO's rating scale, 538 languages are critically endangered, 502 severely endangered, 632 definitely endangered and 607 unsafe. The atlas says 200 languages have become extinct in the last three generations, and another 199 languages have fewer than 10 speakers left.

But the news is not all dire. Papua New Guinea, the country of 800 languages, the most diverse in the world, has only 88 endangered dialects. Certain languages are even showing signs of a revival, like Cornish, a Celtic language spoken in Cornwall, southern England, and Sishee in New Caledonia. Governments in Peru, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and Mexico have been successful in their efforts to prevent indigenous languages from dying out.

While government support can help, the most important step in keeping languages alive and healthy is to ensure that the people are proud to speak their language.

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Sidd lobo
Freelance writer


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